A Walk Through the Planes – Part 13: Well of Worlds




Well of Worlds is the final of what I consider the first wave of Planescape releases. All of these early products were based around introducing the setting and illustrating how people might set their games there. They tend not to be particularly deep or groundbreaking, with the exception of David Cook’s Campaign Setting itself, but that’s fine, it’s not really their purpose. As such, Well of Worlds had a doubly difficult time, as it was also the setting’s counterpart to Tales of the Outer Planes. Until now, that was what planar adventures looked like to the average player. Now, Well comes along to say, “Here’s what they’re like now that Planescape is here and the result is… good?” I mean, sometimes, though on the whole it’s the first work in the series that you won’t find on anyone’s best-of lists. It’s not bad per se, at least not when compared with Tales, but it’s thoroughly skippable and there’s only a couple of adventures in the book I’d actually consider running. 

Colin McComb’s Well of Worlds collects nine adventures into 128 pages plus an additional poster-map. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think that this format is a particularly good one, and as a result has largely gone extinct. The small page count for each adventure means there are two main options available, neither of which is great, and both of which we’ll see plenty of here. The first of these is a largely linear adventure, where players hit each plot point like a rollercoaster ride. The second is a nicely open scenario with many points of interest and ideas players might explore, but not enough information to flesh things out. Of the two, the second is definitely preferable, as it’s not that hard for a committed dungeon master to add new material, but at the same time if you’re largely writing an adventure yourself then why are you playing a pre-made adventure in the first place? Well features plenty of adventures in both of these categories, and the result feels neither cohesive nor satisfying. There is fun to be had here, but unlike with The Eternal Boundary you kind of have to go out of your way to find it. 


To its credit, Well begins with one of its better adventures, and that it’s also the one with a map on the poster makes me suspect everyone involved in creating the book knew it. “To Baator and Back” focuses on getting the player characters out of the prime material world and, ultimately, into Sigil. Along the way they’re forced to go through Baator, aka Hell, but the reasoning behind all of this is ultimately sound. I ran a version of this adventure not too long ago and for the most part it went well. Its mcguffin is interesting enough, and the version of Baator/Avernus it posits is both hellish and not too difficult for players to survive, which is always a difficult mixture to get right. What’s more, the writing is some of McComb’s strongest in the book, as it doesn’t involve nearly so much bad dialogue (at least here, this is my biggest stylistic qualm with his writing—his dialogue is consistently meh-to-terrible) as he did in more roleplaying-intensive adventures. 

Yet immediately we see the problems I mentioned above creeping in. My players wanted to go off the map in Baator and explore another lead that’s mentioned in the book. Doing so made the story fall apart immediately, such that I needed to come up with a completely new bit of storyline. The scenario assumed they’d do exactly what the book hoped, though, meaning that the wide open space that appears when you see that map of Baator is in fact quite limited. It’s a linear plot, and while the book will do much worse in this regard later, linearity causes problems when you’re trying to impart the infinite majesty of the planes. This version of Baator feels a bit small and closed off. I don’t regret using it to get my PCs to Sigil, and it’s certainly better than the suggestion offered in the Campaign Setting, but it’s still a bit lacking. 

The book’s cartography is as superb as ever.

The second scenario, “The Mazes,” is one of my two favorites in the book and one of the few I’d recommend running pretty much as given. The heroes are enlisted in retrieving a magical sword from a disgraced ex-factol now stuck in one of the Lady of Pain’s mazes. How they decide to go about this, whether it means stealing the sword or teaming up with various other factions searching for it, is left open and easily has multiple solutions. Here, the PCs have enough freedom to attack this problem through diplomacy, stealth, or sheer brute force, and at the same time none of these methods are a guaranteed success. What’s more, the actual map of the maze itself feels fittingly insane and difficult to make sense of. 

The other thing this scenario does so well is to grow the world. Here, we’re introduced to not just what the mazes are like, but also some history of the factions. The Expansionist faction it introduces shows the capaciousness of the setting and makes the world feel larger and realer. One problem with the initial Campaign Setting is that it can make the world feel set in stone. Here, though, we see Sigil changing, and this would become one part of the setting I really appreciated. It’s not like an episode of The Simpsons where everything resets at the end of the day; the actions of the characters can cause real change in the multiverse. We’ll see this again in the other scenario I quite liked. 

“Love Letter” is the book’s first scenario I wouldn’t run at all, even though I quite like its premise. It’s a twist on Romeo & Juliet where the two lovers are a devil and a demon. The PCs are asked to bring a letter to the demon in the abyss, and if they do so and act nicely, then, well, they succeed. Which is cool, I guess, even if it also feels a bit anticlimactic. 

This is one of those quests that’s a true railroad, though, and as such there’s little for the PCs to decide on except for how rude or not to be to the starring couple. Their path through the Abyss is straightforward (they can decide whether to take a path or cross a lake, a choice that is fundamentally irrelevant) and then find their way through the demon’s tower. That’s it, for the most part, and given that she’s not really an adversary, the fact that her tower is mapped out leads to an interesting read but not much for players to actually do or think about.

What causes even more problems for this scenario is that it’s written so as to be playable by characters of more or less any level. That’s an interesting consideration, but it also doesn’t really work, as it means that rather than adding more to the world of the Abyss or the characters in the scenario, instead the pages are filled with alternate encounters dependent on character level. I was entertained reading about this star-crossed romance, but for the most part I wouldn’t see why anyone would make players sit through this, as there isn’t very much for them to actually, you know, play.

As is DiTerlizzi’s art. Some of it is reused, but the interior work is wonderful aside from the bafflingly mediocre color plates illustrated by others.

“Blood Storm” is a different kind of mediocre, and actually might be fun to run, despite the fundamentally dopey idea at its heart. The players are hired by devils and/or demons to oversee a negotiation between these two factions on a random prime material world. Depending on their choices, they can help out either side (or even just kinda watch and do nothing), and have a lot of options for what to do at this climactic altercation between some rather high-level monsters. 


My issue here isn’t so much with how this battle is approached, which is actually pretty interesting and is set up so as to keep the pressure on regardless of which side the players land on, but that the idea is dumb. The idea of devils and demons having this weird turf war on a random prime world makes everything involved with this feel small to me. I have a difficult time putting my finger on just what about this rubs me the wrong way, considering that this is an adventure for very high level characters, but since I feel like I have to give it a shot, I think it’s that the demons and devils feel like orcs and goblins fighting over a sandwich. This adventure doesn’t feel epic, it feels petty and insignificant despite the major players involved. Yet for all of that, actually running it sounds incredibly involved, meaning a lot of investment for a piddling scenario that seems more first level than 10th level. 

With “Hard Time” we return to an interesting premise and world-building that’s unfortunately crowded out by a linear story. The PCs are told to find a recently-deceased dwarven sage whose expertise lies in portals. However, his soul was sent to the wrong location for its afterlife, and instead of ending up in the dwarven heaven he lands in Colothys, a level of Carceri. The premise  here is interesting and ripe with implications for the setting, but really there’s only one route for PCs to take, and it’s quite straightforward. There’s the possibility for a tiny side journey involving hill giants, but for the most part this is just a straightforward journey to Carceri with little else going on. There are some options as far as how to make it through a temple at the end of the story, but that’s really it, making the whole adventure feel once again rather small. 

The majesty of planar infinity doesn’t work well when there’s only one real route through things. This was quite a fun read, and feels like it tells a lot about how the afterlife and religions work in this world, but at the same time it’s still pretty much just a ride for PCs. When there are options, such as the small towns they can visit, they’re so lacking in description that they feel largely skippable as well. On the plus side, it’s a railroad track that leads to interesting places and characters, and feels worth running just because of how different these adventures are from normal fantasy, but that doesn’t make up for the lack of interactivity. I can see running this as a two-session interlude in the middle of a campaign, but the lack of decision-making involved means it’s hard to really recommend. 

“Epona’s Daughter” is one of my favorite scenarios in the book, partially because the easiest way through it for PCs is to lie their heads off. It’s hard for me to imagine running it, as it’s kind of piddling and ridiculous for characters of levels 9-11, but it’s a creative design and with some adjustments is probably something that could be run at the level of players who’d enjoy it. A prime material king kidnaps a nic’Epona (interplanar talking horse) because… reasons, mostly. Likewise, the players are asked to go find and return this horse to its family (possibly in Sigil, which seems to forget that the city can only be reached through portals—a sadly common problem for Planescape) and given some rough directions. From there, it’s up to them to find the horse and figure out what to do with her when they do. 


Not only is this an open setting for players to romp around in, an important part of the module is that this world is filled with backwater hicks who believe that anyone from other worlds are from the Seelie or Unseelie Court a la Scottish folklore. In fact, this world seems to be basically Scotland (the king is literally named MacDougal), which opens up the possibilities for Planescape in a wonderful way. While it seems like kind of a weird, joke of an adventure for high level characters, I would totally run this with low-level ones and simply adjust the encounters, because it’s a unique and worthwhile setup that’s perhaps held back by assuming that players will try to fight their way through things, at least at some point. Get rid of that issue, and this is one of the book’s real successes.

Most of the new illustrations are multi-page spreads so difficult for me to capture well, but even cropped they’re dynamic.

“Recruiters” is the other standout adventure in Well, and in fact the last one I would recommend. Its concept is that players end up in the gate-town to the Abyss, Plague-Mort, right before it’s ready to slip out of the Outlands and into the Abyss itself. The idea of gate towns drifting into planes was mentioned before, but telling legends about this possibility is different from centering an entire adventure around it actually happening. As such, unlike, say, rescuing a kidnapped horse, the stakes are high here and the events memorable and momentous. There’s a sense that players can really affect the planes, while also illustrating the power of belief in this multiverse. All of this is exactly what an ideal planar adventure should consist of, my main disappointment being that this scenario is just 17 pages long (with several taken up by full-page images) when it could easily be twice that. 

To actually run “Recruiters” seems like it would require a lot of work, and perhaps more than a bit of experience. You need to be able to roll with whatever the PCs are up to and come up with plenty that the scenario doesn’t have room for. There isn’t anything wrong with this, but it does make this very different from most of the book’s modules. Relatedly, it also requires PCs who are self-motivated and enjoy exploring without necessarily any reward. But if you’re up for it, this may be the best module in the book, with plenty for PCs to do and no clear route to victory. In a sense, the chapter is really just an outline of this city at a time of crisis, but that in and of itself is an exciting setting that lends itself easily to adventuring. 

Conversely, “The Hunt” right after it is the worst scenario in the book and almost a textbook scenario in how not to write a D&D adventure. The PCs are told to chaperone a spoiled young noble on a hunt. He kills an animal he shouldn’t, and this takes them to the Beastlands because… magic, or whatever, and then they’re hunted by an unbeatable foe. He gives them a dopey lecture and they go home, the end.


At no point in this adventure are players allowed to deviate from the prescribed script, and successfully doing so leads to harsh punishment. However, their reward for making it through this slog is also to be punished for not preventing the noble from hunting. That this is an escort mission is bad enough, making it one with no decision-making is even worse. Characters will fail, and they will be lectured, and that’s pretty much the only way for this to end. Skip it, and not only that, it’s probably best if you pretend this adventure was never even printed. 

Here’s more art for the Recruiters, because these last two adventures don’t deserve any.

The book’s final scenario, before it ends with a couple magic item listings (why?), is “People Under the Falls.” While escorting a boat down the Great Falls in the River Oceanus, the party comes upon a destroyed inn, and following this trail leads them to an invasion of Slaadi. From here it’s just a standard dungeon crawl against the Slaadi, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s also not super inspired. I don’t really need adventure books to tell me how to make a dungeon, so while this isn’t a bad module, it’s pretty middling, and barely feels planar in nature. 

Now that we’ve run through all of these, let’s take stock of how all of this fits together. While Well has more than a few clunkers, it’s certainly much better than Tales of the Outer Planes, and in fact does a lot to expand the scope of the setting. Shannon Appelcline stated this well in his brief history of the product:

Before The Well of Worlds, Planescape had just one adventure, The Eternal Boundary, which suggested that a typical Planescape adventure started in Sigil and then traveled out into the planes. The Well of Worlds considerable [sic.] broadened the scope of Planescape adventures by offering many more options for “typical” scenarios.

It suggested that Planescape adventures could:

  • Take place entirely in Sigil (“II: The Mazes”).
  • Involve quests or tasks where the characters decided to enter other planes (“III: Love Letter”, “V: Hard Time”, “IX: People under the Fall”), like in The Eternal Boundary.
  • Transport characters to other planes that they then had to escape (“I: To Baator and Back”, “VII: Recruiters”, “VIII: The Hunt”).
  • Focus on planar monsters attacking prime planes (“IV: Blood Storm”, “VI: Epona’s Daughter”).
  • Detail wars between the planes (“IV: Blood Storm”, “IX: People under the Fall”).

So although several of the book’s adventures aren’t worth running, it was still valuable in making the setting’s options feel far more expansive. It also offered plenty of options for people interested in the planes but less interested in Sigil. I’m not even sure Well is one of the setting’s 10 best adventures, let alone releases, but it was still noteworthy and has a couple of real landmark modules. And, well, not every release can be an A, sometimes you need to pass through classes with a B-. Well is Planescape’s first B-, and that’s still a passing grade. 

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