Planes of Law

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 18: Planes of Law




Planes of Chaos had the unenviable task of kicking off the setting’s line of big, boxed sets, plus the even-more unenviable task of detailing the plane of Ysgard (previously known as Gladsheim) and trying to make it remotely interesting. The designers didn’t have any real template to base the set on beforehand, and were, in the best possible sense, winging it. The result was… mostly good, but also a bit of a mess. Fortunately, with only a few months between it and the release of Planes of Law, TSR was already able to improve on the original formula by giving each plane its own little booklet rather than cramming things awkwardly together into a compilation. The result feels like each plane gets its own chance in the spotlight. Combine this with no longer having to cover dull real-world pantheons (and elves, the dullest of fantasy pantheons) and you have a much stronger project, to the point that I kind of wish there was a revised version of Chaos to come back to that implemented what was learned here. Planes of Law is better in almost every respect, both through formatting and the fact that these planes are simply more interesting places to visit. Here, you can feel the designers really flexing their creativity, turning even previously leftover planes (Arcadia and Acheron) into something far more worthwhile. 

There’s no particular suggested order for reading the set’s booklets, and they all kind of wrap together with mini-plots as you read them, but I’m going to start at the top with Mount Celestia, Planescape’s version of the seven heavens and certainly the most approachable of the setting’s surprisingly numerous infinitely-tall mountains.1 It’s the plane of lawful goodness, and is about as conflict-free a space as you can find on the outer planes. Of course, every planes’ summary involves “you think there’s nothing to do here? Well you’re wrong!” and yes, this is true, because the setting is all about roleplaying through conflicts and not smashing monsters’ faces in. But if you are only looking in dungeon crawls, well then, uhh… yeah, this is truly not the plane for you. On arrival, every visitor is immediately dumped into an ocean of holy water, thus destroying all demons and undead before they even have a chance to get to the shore. Celestia is all about inner conflict and personal striving; it’s one of the few outer planes that I’m very glad to have detailed, but don’t think I’ve ever met a party of players who’d actually be interested in taking a trip over. In the most traditional sense of what people like to do in  D&D it’s dull, but I mean that in the best possible way. I think. 


Ascending the seven heavens is akin to gaining enlightenment, to the point that no one who reaches the final layer, Chronias, has ever returned (with one exception), theoretically because they have reached that final, buddhist-lite flavor of eternal bliss, though as far as the game’s concerned it’s another one of those mystery planes that’s left for DM’s to make something of if they’d like (more about this below). I appreciate that this is something the setting stuck with, partially because it means that despite the hundreds of pages Planescape spends detailing the universe it’s still filled with plenty of uncharted areas, and partially because it’s just a cool concept. Had Planescape managed to last for decades, there’s a sense that it would still have unexplored sections to put adventures in that would be just as weird and unexpected as things were at the beginning. Plus, every fewer layer means more details about the rest. 

He’s an Archon, I think. Or maybe a children’s party magician.

My favorite part of the plane is something that unfortunately gets short shrift. Movement in any but the prime material plane is often alien and borderline abstract, differentiating how this works also adds a great deal of flavor to differentiate these areas. In Mount Celestia, the paths are even more metaphysical than usual:

The paths of Mount Celestia are both physical roads and trails, and spiritual journeys to the heights of purity and wisdom in the Illuminated Heaven … The spiritual paths have many different names among lantern archons from different places in the Prime: the Eightfold Path, The Five Virtues, and so on—cutters can call them whatever they want. 

Despite that dismissive language at the end of the passage, the paths are spelled out in a bit more detail, and each of them have their own specific benefits and difficulties. Personally, I would allow players to discover other ones as well, but at the same time actually running these in a game seems a bit janky. I’ve always used a lot of maps for D&D, and here more than elsewhere they feel like they almost fight against what makes the place so unique. I wish this section was given more than a page of material, as it seems quite important, even if it’s more than a bit half-baked.

The actual locations on the plane are pretty forgettable, which isn’t surprising because different shades of good just aren’t that interesting to read about. Nonetheless, they are still well-written, and Wolfgang Bauer does an excellent job imbuing Celestia with its own tone, even if the actual sites aren’t as strange or wonderful as what’s found on most other planes. What does work well, though, especially when compared with what appeared in Planes of Chaos, are the sample adventures. While the first of these is only passable, the later two are much more interesting and add conflict to a location that would seem otherwise bereft of it. “A Gauntlet Thrown” centers around the fact that “lawful good” is not a single, unified concept, and even those with the best intentions are going to find themselves disagreeing about how things should be implemented. The conflict here isn’t wonderful, but it’s an easy template for DMs to build from, and shows a little bit of friction in this otherwise too-smooth location. “The Silent Aasimon” pulls at the other strong development here, which as mentioned earlier is the mystery of Chronias. While this concept was included in the original Manual of the Planes as well, it’s one thing to say a place is mysterious when it’s contrasted with only vague descriptions, it’s another to set it aside like this after a whole book of details. Like with the fourth layer of Pandemonium or the third layer of Olympus, it creates the possibility of adventure. While that’s much more difficult to use here than in those locations, at least this sample scenario gives DMs a template for how it might be done. 

It entertains me that Formians are on the cover to Arcadia’s book considering that in third edition they’re mostly associated with Mechanus.

Arcadia2 is one of the vaguer planes in the original Manual, to the point that it states that “the lower reaches have not been explored nor are their contents common knowledge.” This meant that Colin McComb had plenty of space to work with, and aside from the idea of geometrically growing plants and orderly nature, he reinvented the plane wholly. Some of these additions are odd or barely noteworthy (the Storm Kings, who I believe are first mentioned here, are meh), but on the whole it’s a memorable place for the first time that reconceptualizes what the plane means. Yes, it has somewhat interesting new native inhabitants, the Formians, who would go on to become duller and more stereotypical in third edition, but Arcadia is really about the Harmonium, Planescape’s version of cops. And as we all know, ACAB, and this is truly no exception here.

Hardheads enjoy it most especially because of its “We’re right, and if you don’t agree with us, you’re wrong and probably should be punished for it” attitude. At least, that’s the way they see the plane, and who’s going to argue with them? They’re not exactly people a body can disagree with, or even apologize to later.

While there are plenty of legitimately good folks in the plane, for the most part Arcadia is about people who say they’re good but are actually just into bossing people about, often through the use of lethal force. The result of this is that the plane’s third layer, Nemausus, no longer exists. Due to the influence of the Harmonium’s reeducation camps, the good part of lawful good eroded away so much that it was just plain lawful (I would argue evil, but I’m cool with it being a slow drift downward for the area). “It’s still got some good tendencies, but the constant attempts by the Harmonium and the other inhabitants to take it back are so often flavored with evil and selfishness that the layer isn’t in any danger of returning soon.” Likewise, the Hardheads have been doing their best to keep it quiet that they’re the cause of this through their evil experiments. Moreso than anything yet revealed in Planescape, we see how these planes aren’t static at all, and the actions of players can reshape things radically. There is literally an entire layer of a plane that has changed since that first Manual, which leads to the possibility of other planar changes in the future. Suddenly the Great Wheel becomes something that can be toyed with, and the implications of this are widespread.

Two of the three Arcadian adventures also center on the Harmonium, one of which serves to illustrate that “the Harmonium takes care of its own” (they are cops, after all) and another one to reveal the missing plane. That’s right, there’s a sort of fascinating meta-plot where the loss of Nemausus is known by the DM, but not by players or random NPCs in the universe. It is a secret set to be revealed as part of a campaign. Previously published planar material at this point becomes not exactly canon, but rather the known facts before Planescape existed; it’s out of date, and frequently ill-informed. The Manual is, like so much of the Planescape material itself, a form of rumor that may have some truth to it, but perhaps not the entire truth. Arcadia is slipping out of the upper planes entirely and putting its laws before its people, and the result is the greatest cover-up in the planes. The implications about Orcus in Planes of Chaos were enticing, but as far as I’m concerned what McComb did here was much bigger and more immediately relevant. Between this and his adventure about Plague-Mort in Well of Worlds, he’s becoming something of a specialist in showing how the planar landscape that seemed so sturdy and eternal before now is just as malleable as anything in the prime material plane. 

This modron shows off just how alien the species is by looking, well, just like an alien.

Obviously part of Mechanus’ description concerns Nemausus, that lost layer of Arcadia, but it’s not given an overwhelming amount of material. There’s enough about it here to create adventures, but I appreciate that McComb didn’t decide to make that the focus of the set, instead relying on the natural (i.e. unnatural) weirdness of Mechanus and its inhabitants to fill the pages. Like a lot of old Planescape fans, I rather love this plane and its modron focus. Seemingly, someone at Wizards of the Coast didn’t, and after second edition they receded more and more into the game’s background such that I’m not sure many fifth edition players have ever heard of them, but modrons are unique and weird and just a different brand of fantasy than so much of Dungeons & Dragons. Come to think of it, this is probably why they’ve been largely excised, but for me they add something to the multiverse that’s otherwise lacking. They’re indecipherable in the same manner as fiends or angels, which is how any alignment’s exemplar should be, but perhaps in a different way than usually expected. They are alien to basic human experiences, and that trait is what makes them so much fun to put into a campaign. 


Likewise, the gears here are a lot more unique than, say, the rolling plains of Arcadia or the gentle slopes of Mount Celestia. I also find them more interesting than the hellscapes you’ll find elsewhere, as they’re just not something previously much-imagined in fantasy. Mechanus is one of the few parts of the multiverse that doesn’t feel like an extension or riff on other mythological constructs, rather it’s particular to here. The gears and its strange realms, like Delon-Estin Oti and its absurdly orderly robotic inhabitants, have a freshness to them. It’s good material, and while I could do with a lot more of it, Mechanus is probably one of the more visited Planescape locations for a good reason.

As with the previous planes, the low-level adventure for Mechanus is lacking, such that at this point it should be clear to most people that the idea of having low-level adventurers stick around Sigil and perhaps the Outlands like it was suggested in the Campaign Setting was a pretty good idea. The other two, though, are quite worthwhile, and I particularly like “Haywire,” which focuses on the question of how hard it is to tell a rogue modron from a normal one. Here, one goes rogue and marshals an army, but as far as the players and even lower level modrons are concerned it’s indistinguishable from any other modron. It’s important to remember that even a rogue modron is still orderly, they just have different orders. At this point, rogue modrons as playable characters still aren’t on the table, but you can see why they would be soon, as the possibilities for roleplaying here are excellent. The final adventure, “The End of Time,” isn’t quite as good, but does play into one of the central questions of the plane: what are the gears actually for? Here, there’s a group who wants to make them stop, and this allows DMs to play with possible large-scale changes. Again, we see McComb working to keep the planes from being static and have characters make some real differences in what’s around them. 

Bladelings are a little bit ridiculous in the “Todd McFarlane-Look-How-Cool-I-Am” school of thought, but they’re developed into an interesting society nonetheless.

Acheron is another plane that was given short shrift in the Manual, with just a one-page description and some sketchy basics that it was a place of endless warfare. What this really looked like, and how it differed from, say, the endless warfare in the Abyss, was largely missing, and that’s what Wolfgang Baur does an excellent job of filling in. If nothing else, his decision to populate the plane with orcs and goblins does a good job of answering what happens to those races that seem endlessly huge on the prime material plane yet barely make an appearance on the outer planes until now. They don’t really fit in with Hell and its many flavors, but they need to go somewhere. Acheron, a void filled with endlessly clanging cubes and pointless warfare, seems a fitting location. 

Baur took the basic, single-paragraph or so descriptions from the Manual and says no, it’s not just a void, there are people living here. This means not just the orcs and goblins, but also powers, and even a new race he creates in order to make the final layer more than just a hellscape of tiny daggers, the bladelings. Obviously the top layer, Avalas, is still the highlight and usual visitor area, but the addition of the Hopping Tower and the bladelings make it so that all four layers feel like places you’d actually want to visit, or at least force players into visiting. Even without the meta-plots of Mechanus and Arcadia, this place was a joy to read through, and not only did the layers feel distinct, they all felt unique to the planes as a whole, which is something a lot of planes have difficulty with—there’s a reason why primes confuse the upper and lower planes, as a lot of the time it doesn’t really make much of a difference whether you’re in the Abyss or Gehenna. But Acheron? No way someone mistakes that for anywhere else in the multiverse, even though all four layers are quite unique flavors of the same general concept of floating debris.


Even the low-level Acheron adventure feels momentous, given that “Little Lost Gear Spirit” involves the discovery of the bladelings. And while “Hand of Fate” is a bit similar to the Mechanus adventure with the rogue modron, this seems a bit fitting. Lawful adventures are all about orders and understanding how to manipulate them, and here it’s about a death omen that serves to create distrust between an orc general and his henchmen. One of the things I tend to dislike about adventure prompts is when they assume players are already out there, and fortunately this gives a good reason for players to land in Acheron, lending itself to those other “now that they’re here” sorts of encounters later. Finally, “How Many Rust Dragons Does It Take to Get to the Center of an Iron Cube?” wins the award for best title, if nothing else. Like a lot of high-level adventures, it seems pretty damn tough on the PCs, and likewise hard for the DM to run, but it is a cool idea that again involves the possibility of real planar change, as the PCs come in to figure out what’s destroying the town of Vorkehan before it’s too late. I appreciate when these books detail a location and then send a real threat in that direction, which was something that happened too infrequently in Planes of Chaos. In all, a wonderful booklet. 

I love DiTerlizzi’s version of the Nine Lords of Hell, but three of them being vaguely malevolent shadows is pretty weak.

Considering that Hell/Baator has been a perennial favorite ever since its introduction in D&D, to the point that it was really Ed Greenwood’s articles that kicked off a lot of interest in the planes at all, it’s a surprise it took this long for Planescape to give it more than a handful of brief passages. Colin McComb’s take on the plane draws heavily from Greenwood’s pair of Dragon articles, which is no surprise, as it had been a decade since their original printing and there was an entire generation of players who’d never had access to that, let alone enough interest to purchase a hobbyist specialty magazine. This was the first time Hell made its way into the mainline limelight, and while there were some devils detailed in the past3, for most players they were still unfamiliar territory.

The main thing McComb’s take on Hell does compared with Greenwood’s is to add the Blood War into the mix, bringing that whole Dark Eight generals conception of things into alignment with the previously established devilish hierarchy. This works… ok, I guess, though the Dark Eight were never terribly interesting to me compared with the archdevils, and by third edition they were a footnote, while the archdevils would be detailed repeatedly. The Lords of the Nine, as they’re referred to here, are kind of odd as since the beginning of Planescape only a few of them were supposed to be known, though to any old school players this just seemed kinda lame (there is a stat-block for Asmodeus you could find without too much investigtation). The meta-plot here isn’t terribly interesting, as it’s trying to add mysteries to something that has already been detailed. Eventually the setting would drop this conceit, and later the conflicting accounts of which devils were in charge of each layer would go through a surprising number of largely unnecessary changes, but on the whole the Lords and their accompanying layers became the main focus for hell. 

The best part of this booklet, then, are the sections detailing the realms of Draukari, Ankhwugaht, and Sheyruushk and the cities Jangling Hiter and Grenpoli. The coincidence for these areas is that they’re the non-devilish (well, Baatorian) parts of the plane—the setting would spend plenty of time on the devils proper later, so it’s nice to show that there’s more to do here than bargain with fiends. The detail these areas offer really fleshed out Hell, making it into a much more diverse and interesting plane, and over the next couple years we’d spend a lot of time learning more about this area, which still sees plenty of adventuring in fifth edition D&D. But really, when I say the best part of the booklet are these cities and realms what I mean is that Jangling Hiter is the best, a place filled with kytons (chain devils) and made up entirely of chains. It’s a creepy, strange place that feels ripe for terrifying adventures unlike those elsewhere. McComb lavished love on this city and it shows; plus, I love the art for those chain devils, which is somehow both goofy and terrifying at the same time.


Once again, the low-level adventure for Hell is lacking, and seems largely like a half-assed version of the first adventure from Well of Worlds, also by McComb. Just run that instead. “Desert Night” involves a journey to Ankwugaht to find an interesting mcguffin, which is solid enough and a standard D&D, let alone Planescape, plot, though nothing too special. Really, it’s an excuse to get the PCs into Jangling Hitter, and you know what? That’s good enough. Nothing too creative in the story, but these are cool places to visit, so who cares. The final adventure, “Inner Workings,” is for levels of “the higher the better,” and is just kind of a trip down through all the hells on the tail of a demon. Again, nothing too special here, but if you’re looking for an excuse to throw your high-level players at the deadliest that Hell has to offer, I suppose you could do worse.

Gotta love this goofball.

Aside from these 32-page booklets on each of the planes, Law also features another absolutely gorgeous full-color booklet for players, which features at least one location worth checking out in each of these planes. What’s more, unlike the last boxed set, these aren’t repeated elsewhere too, which means there’s quite a bit more material here than in Chaos. It’s more of the best part of the set, so an absolute must-read. Then there’s 32 pages of monster descriptions, which add things like the kytons and rust dragons, not to mention the entirety of the archons. They’re not all winners here, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the zoveri since this supplement, but it’s well worth the read and does add a lot if you want to actually run these planes. 

Finally, Rob Lazzaretti kicks in with another amazing set of maps. As usual, they’re only passably useful, and in the case of Arcadia/Mechanus probably something you don’t want to initially show players due to spoiling what’s going on with Nemausus, but they still do a fantastic job conveying the feeling of these planes. The backs of the maps are largely taken up with hierarchies which are… well, I’m glad they’re not taking up space in the books, at least. But yes, the maps sure are a work of beauty. Sometimes I want to frame them, but then I remember that I’m an adult and people (i.e. my wife) would definitely judge. But maybe I will anyhow, because I’m an idiot. 

A superior release in pretty much every way to Chaos, Planes of Law really has the setting coming into its own. It’s the best Planescape release yet, building off what’s come before both in the setting and elsewhere while still managing to find new ways to make this world strange and interesting. I can’t necessarily say that it’s worth the $200 or so it would take to get an original copy today, but this is a good enough release that if money’s no object it’s actually worth going beyond the PDF. 

1. Seriously, how many of these are there? Can’t throw a stone without hitting an infinitely tall mountain when you’re in the outer planes.

2. I must admit, I also have personal reasons for my love of Arcadia. 

3. Including archdevils—I’ll talk more about them when I finally go back and write about AD&D‘s Monster Manual II, which I skipped not so much because it was irrelevant but because my familiarity with it made it less interesting to me than either pushing onto Planescape or reading new books.

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