Prospecting the Planes

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 17: Prospecting the Planes in Dragon Magazine




[Editor’s note: After publishing this essay, we were contacted by Ed Bonny, the author of the article on the Demiplane of Shadow. He included some contextual information about why the shape of this article doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the issue, which is included below. In the near future, we’ll be running a longer interview with him regarding his many contributions to Planescape and D&D.

Ed Bonny writes: I would like to provide some of the article’s history so as to allow for a greater understanding as to why a decidedly non-Planescape article appeared in a Planescape issue. While #213 was published in 1995, the article was written/submitted to Dragon in 1993, prior to Planescape’s publication. The writing for the article was intended to parallel the writing/language of the planar entries found in the Manual of the Planes, giving the article what I would call a mostly 1e feel. Sometime before the Planescape campaign setting was released, Dragon accepted my Demiplane of Shadow article. Shortly after Planescape was released (and my love affair with PS began), I asked Dragon if I could revise/rewrite the article as a Planescape piece. To my disappointment, Dragon replied no, stating there was no time for a revise given their production schedule and the imminent publication of the issue. And so what you have in #213 is a basic 1e/2e style article sandwiched by Planescape pieces in what is essentially a planes-themed issue. While Demiplane of Shadow was published in the period described in your Walk as “The Planescape Era,” I think it more rightfully fits within the earlier “Pre-Planescape” chapter.]


We’ve looked at Dragon magazine several times in the past, and there will certainly be more small dives into it in the future, but issue #213 is a planar-themed issue with so much material it ended up as a supplement unto itself. Kind of. It contains four feature articles about the planes, two of which are Planescape-related and two of which weirdly aren’t. Already, we can see some of the push-pull about the setting’s existence that would continue until Wizards of the Coast killed it off completely with the game’s next edition. Planescape is supposed to be its own thing, yet at the same time the planes are linked to every setting and there’s no reason for them to be limited to just this series. That being said, it’s still quite jarring to have some planar material written in Sigil-style cant and some in dry game-supplement prose. There’s a lot of whiplash in this issue,  but no matter, all four of these articles are relevant to this column and worth at least taking a look at. 

The first and longest of these articles is “Godsmen, Bleakers, Guvners, & Takers” by Rich Baker, who would go on to a lengthy career with TSR/WotC including authoring two full Planescape supplements in the future. One of the oddities of the first year of Planescape releases is that while the setting itself placed large emphasis on the factions, this isn’t seen much until the next year. They still feel somewhat strange and unknowable, and I don’t envy a DM trying to run a campaign in Sigil at this time as there isn’t a ton to go on for the factions beyond their one-page initial descriptions and small bits of additional material in the adventures, largely for just the Doomguard and the Dustmen. Baker’s essay brings the spotlight back onto them, divulging both the “secrets” of these groups (very briefly and without too much depth) as well as additional rules for playing them. 

What’s particularly worthwhile about Baker’s article is the emphasis it places on how the hierarchies of all these disparate organizations differ. When they’re first introduced, there’s a same-iness to the factions despite all the effort put into making them theoretically diverse.. They’re supposed to be wildly different, a powder keg of dueling philosophies that can’t coexist, but at the same time we have so little to go on that it can be difficult to distinguish the Harmonium from the Mercykillers. Although the article only provides half a dozen or so more paragraphs on each of the factions, in some cases this is literally doubling what we know about them. It also helps that these write-ups focus on the higher levels of the factions, where things get more distinct and interesting. A namer for any faction isn’t too different because no one trusts them much, but once someone becomes a factor (if that even exists for the group) things get odder. Plus, the unique powers described here gives players reasons to try and achieve this level of prestige. I don’t think there’s a ton of balance here, but as far as roleplaying goes “Godsmen” does an excellent job of providing something that was dearly missing before. 

DiTerlizzi’s art isn’t new here, neither does the magazine’s printing do it justice. Rowan Darkwood isn’t even identified, which is kind of weird.

Following this comes an article about the Demiplane of Shadow by Edward Bonny. The writing here is much, well, crappier, and pales in particular comparison with the previous article, but is still worth reading because it fleshes out something that’s been hinted at since the original Manual of the Planes. There, the Demiplane of Shadow is given just a paragraph. It’s “the largest of [the demi-planes], and is constructed of equal parts of the Positive and Negative material planes.” Bonny sticks with this initial explanation and fleshes it out… slightly. The actual physical conditions of the plane are still given only a paragraph. Instead, the article is filled with notes on what monsters live in the plane, the effects it has on magic, and several dull pages about what happens when people want to be immortal shades. Weirdly, this actually makes up most of the article, which also meant most of these pages were skippable. The actual plane itself is given just a couple hundred words, but these shades, who will probably see play in almost no one’s campaigns? They’re given several thousand. 


“The Demiplane of Shadow” really illustrates why Planescape material has held up so well compared with many other roleplaying game supplements. By being interested in flavor and ideas, they barely touch upon boring things like encounter lists or weird rules about magic. It takes no big stretch of the imagination to know that shadow dragons and shadelings reside on the demiplane of Shadow, whereas the insane hierarchy of the Xaositects can really use as much explanation as it can get. The least interesting part of any roleplaying game is the part that makes it a game and not a storytelling exercise.


Oddly, the book then skips to “Planar Personalities” by Bill Slavicsek and Michele Carter, another Planescape article and my favorite read of the book. The essay is no more than profiles of four unique and interesting NPC characters: A’kin, the friendly fiend; Lisandra the gate-seeker; Estavan of the planar trade consortium; and Kylie, a tout (and the article’s narrator until suddenly she isn’t). 

Hell if I know what’s going on here. Maybe they’ve inadvertently landed in the elemental plane of tribbles?

While this doesn’t sound like much, in execution the article is bountiful and engrossing. Each of these NPCs helps to make Sigil feel larger and more lively. They also all have obvious uses in adventures, and I don’t just mean that the planar trade consortium makes an appearance in an upcoming module. Rather, these are all individuals who seem central to, or at least knowledgeable of, the city’s plots, and can serve both as contacts and quest-givers. A’kin went on to become beloved by the community, but all four of these characters are worthy additions to any campaign and do a lot of heavy lifting for making Sigil more usable. Like with “Guvners,” there’s simply not enough information about Sigil that’s been published yet, so “Planar Personalities” is not just a joy to read, it feels necessary. Soon we’ll get much more along these lines, but this is an excellent stopgap until we reach the trilogy of books spent on Sigil from later in the product line. I may not have forgiven Slavicsek for The Deva Spark yet, but, well, this certainly helps.


The last planar article from the issue is “You Never Know Who (or What) You’ll Meet,” which is by far the least useful of the bunch and is entirely skippable if you’ve got better things to do with your time1. Its entire premise is that high-level parties need more weird shit happening to them in the planes, and what better way of deciding what weird shit they should face than random number tables. The article consists of three lists, one of “interdimensional mishaps,” one of “forces and places of the multiverse,” and one of “Strange encounters.” I can’t imagine why anyone would use these lists for something besides adventure prompts, and as far as those go they’re rather lacking. A few of the ideas they propose are at least odd enough to be interesting, such as: “The auditing department. Oh-oh. The agency responsible for balancing the levels of magic in the multiverse has found an account overdrawn.” But as a whole, these adventure ideas propose living in a silly, random multiverse without any real theology or real logical sense. They don’t really work with the great wheel mythology (let alone Planescape), at least not well, and strain credulity. If you have a really goofy group who just likes to do weird shit, then I can see stealing some of these ideas for use, but really that’s about it. 

I want to use that old cliché here and say that this set of articles is a mixed bag, but really it’s not. Two of these are quite good, two are quite bad, and there isn’t any real crossover or grey area. If anything, the juxtaposition of these Planescape essays with other planar material serves to illustrate why Planescape works and gives us new material for those running campaigns there, while the other two are the type of garbage that feel like they take away from a DM’s creativity rather than adding to it. I can’t help but wish all four articles had been for the setting, or at least felt like they had tight editorial control. Instead, this planar blowout of an issue feels like more of an hor’dourve than a meal, simply tiding us over until the next real Planescape products would come out. Fortunately, the line’s insane publishing schedule would keep up for the next year, so it was just a month before the next huge boxed set made its way to store shelves. 

1. I know I said otherwise in the intro, but if you won’t allow me to contradict myself entirely every now and then in these columns then we’ll never get anywhere.

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