A Walk Through the Planes – Part 15: In the Abyss




Planescape’s first standalone adventure, The Eternal Boundary, wasn’t exactly earth-shattering, but it was quite a contrast to typical Dungeons & Dragons stories. Where so many other adventures at the time were still glorified dungeon crawls, it turned AD&D into a murder mystery investigation, made all the more interesting by the central mystery concerning whether people were ever in fact murdered at all. The game system had a rough time handling this sort of non-combat encounter, but that’s less important than the emphasis this immediately placed on roleplaying, character, and setting. These are the strengths of Planescape, so it’s little surprise that the designers wanted to lean hard on these aspects from the beginning. But sometimes people really do just want a good dungeon crawl, to go out there and bash in monsters heads with all their newfound trinkets and spells. So then, what does a Plansecape dungeon look like, exactly, and what makes it different from one anywhere else? These are the questions In the Abyss sets to answer, and it in fact does a pretty good job within this more limited scope.

In the Abyss is split into three chapters just like its predecessor, though the actual content is much less equally divided here. Each of Boundary‘s chapters felt huge, at least a session worth in length and possibly much more dependent on what players did. It wasn’t a storyline you would want to play through over a weekend, and lent itself well to plenty of other exploration around Sigil’s environs. Abyss‘s three chapters aren’t remotely equal, and it would be quite possible to play through the entire 32-page adventure in one long session. Chapter I consists solely of getting the quest, and though there’s certainly some intrigue involved with this, if players take the path of least resistance it’s about 15-20 minutes worth of material. Good, flavorful material, with plenty of consideration as to other options and considerations for the dungeon master to include, but it’s also literally “get a quest from this dude.” Said quest: blow up a ship of chaos in the Abyss. 


Chapter II is more interesting, as it opens up with characters arriving in the Abyss (thus the title). Unless it doesn’t get more interesting. It’s quite possible for players to be granted a wish by the quest-giver that means the second chapter gets largely skipped in favor of an instant jump to the end, which… well, I guess that’s one way to write an adventure. If so, skip to the dungeon and smash those monsters. Rawr.

While not as good as Tony DiTerlizzi’s sketches, the color plates for this book were actually pretty decent. Stereotypical, sure, but at least they’re not embarrassing.

Conversely, assuming your characters don’t take the path of least resistance, Chapter II is where the excitement lies. The players land in the ever-popular first layer of the Abyss1, which certainly has similarities to what we saw in Throne of Bloodstone, though now it’s a bit more spread out and varied, i.e.  there’s more to do here than die or toss yourself down into holes. The players are searching for a flying ship of chaos (Planescape’s version of a dungeon here), which circumnavigates an open map of the area. If they’re smart, the PCs can get hints as to where it is, or perhaps they get lucky and randomly head off in its direction. At the same time, it’s quite possible for them to be dumb and make poor decisions and never find the ship at all. This section may require some work from the DM, but I really loved how it transformed this layer of the Abyss. It’s not exactly hospitable—the PCs are expected to be at least level eight, and probably higher than that in order to survive—but at least it feels usable. The book spends 12 pages on this section, and they really flesh out this layer into something more diverse and reasonably “real” in a way we’ve never seen before. Depending on how you want to run things and what your players are looking for, I highly suggest skipping the whole wish nonsense and just seeing what players make of things here, as it turns the Abyss into a real setting instead of just a bit of background landscape. It’s Hellish, but not in a boring way, which is no small feat.


Chapter III is the dungeon crawl part, though even here the dungeon is untraditional to say the least. The players need to take down that renegade ship of chaos, which is filled with demons and controlled by demonic brains. Fortunately, there’s more to do here than go room from room pummeling everyone you meet. The most interesting part of the ship (and quite possibly the first part encountered) are its prisoners, a pair of Doomguards who have gone crazy due to the chaotic energies of the ship. How they’re dealt with is enjoyably open, likewise it seems quite possible for players to take down the ship but still fail to realize how it’s being controlled and thus fail the quest. The book devotes a couple pages at the end to essentially the question of “what happens if the ship goes where it’s trying to and the characters fail,” and the answer seems to be largely “you’re fucked,” though with some small caveats for DMs who are really trying their best not to let the party die. 

Rob Lazzaretti’s cartography as evocative and lovely as ever. At this point, he’d even made that woman in the circle a motif (though its meaning is something I have absolutely no idea about).

The other thing I appreciate about the ship-as-dungeon mechanic is that it creates new obstacles for PCs, from “How the hell do we get up there?” to “How do we get this thing to stop?” There aren’t actually that many fights on-board, and that’s fine for me. The emphasis here is on tone and the feeling of being on a chaotic ship that’s out of your control. While it is a form of a dungeon, it’s not meant to feel like one, and the adventure does an excellent job of emphasizing what makes it different. A Planescape dungeon still involves fights and puzzles, but they are in the service of more than simply stopping something evil, and really the most evil person involved in the whole story may be the person who first gave the players their quest. Yes, demon heads get bashed in, but that’s hardly the centerpiece compared with the actual location itself and the meaning of the struggles surrounding it.


That’s it for the adventure, but I don’t want to skip over something else I appreciated quite a bit about from  In the Abyss, which is how it ties in with material from Planes of Chaos. The Ships of Chaos were mentioned there as one of dozens of dangling plotlines. This is particularly fleshed out in the short description of Twelvetrees, the twelfth layer of the Abyss and home to some particularly dark demonic rites following the ritual sacrifice of a dozen devas. This is the type of meta-plot I loved from 90s-era AD&D, and there’s a reason why this was the golden age for campaign setting storylines. All of these plot threads from the boxed sets are made to feel much more alive by having even a few of them continue elsewhere. These worlds linked pieces together, and rewarded fans for paying attention to everything published. It’s one thing to read that there are rumors of something happening in a bit of flavor text, it’s another thing entirely to turn that into an entire adventure just a month later.


I’ve never run In the Abyss and probably won’t, as the whole point of it is still largely just to take on the demon ship. I’m not very keen on dungeon crawls, as generally I’d rather just play a board or video game instead (I like roleplaying games for the roleplaying)—actually running high-level D&D or Pathfinder and making their encounters interesting is a difficult task and one I’m frankly not great at. But even so, this adventure shakes up certain parts of the dungeon crawl formula while still delivering that head-bashing fun, which signals that even this most basic of D&D adventures format is something a bit stranger and more enticing in the world of Planescape. Basic assumptions need to be questioned, from the motives of the quest-giver to the safety of towns to whether trees are made out of snakes (seriously). For a session or two of high-level play, you could certainly do much worse than this, and it’s well worth the read even if, like me, it’s a bit too high-level for you to run anytime soon.

1. It’s around this point where the Abyss really begins to feel less like it has an infinite number of planes, and more like it just has this first plane and maybe a couple realms you probably don’t want to fall into. I get why the first layer shows up so often, but usually it’s only the first layer that shows up. 

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