A Walk Through the Planes – Part 19: Fires of Dis




It’s more than a little bit silly how many adventures we’ve had in Planescape already considering that by the time Fires of Dis was published it had still been less than a year since the setting had been announced. Adventures tend to date quickly, and unfortunately with the exception of the first scenario, The Eternal Boundary, none of these are particularly well-regarded or remembered. Part of that is due to their variable quality, but part of that is I suspect because of their format. Up until now these were all short adventures, and required either a lot of additional work from DMs hoping to run them or were incredibly linear—or most frequently both. They did help expand the setting, showing us what a typical planar adventure looked like (and doing a much better job at this than what we saw in the 1980s), but rarely in grandiose or particularly interesting ways. What’s more, at times they even fought against what made Planescape unique, putting an emphasis on binary alignments and ideas of good versus evil when the erosion of those ideas is one of the better things about campaign setting. 

Fires of Dis is twice as long as any of the individually-released adventures so far, and this space really helps distinguish it and make it into something special. Its production was unique, at least according to Shannon Appelcline, and that may be part of why it works so well:


Freelancer Steve Perrin was contracted to write an introductory adventure for Planescape that involved a trip to the Nine Hells. When he asked whether he should reprint info on the Nine Hells from the Planescape Campaign Setting, he was told to do so. However, by the time the adventure arrived at TSR, the powers-that-be had changed their mind; editor Ray Vallese cut out much of the repetitive material and replaced it with new material of his own, resulting in rather unusual credits for “Fires of Dis”: Steve Perrin is listed as “original design” while Ray Vallese is listed as “additional design”.

Yes, by modern standards I’m sure people still consider the design here to be overly railroad-y, but those extra pages really allow the adventure to expand into something special. It’s easy to see how Fires could’ve been jammed into another 32 page booklet, but doubling that length made it so that while the major plot beats are all still spelled out in advance, how players get from one to the next is actually pretty open. Sometimes I feel like adventures get accused of being a railroad if they have so much as a goal, and ultimately Fires has multiple routes for players to decide upon, dozens of optional events and encounters, and an entire chapter that is pointed out as possible to be skipped if players make certain choices. Basically, it delivers what I look for in an adventure, which is a strong skeleton but also plenty of support for when players decide to head off and do their own thing. I’m not totally sure what else people want from adventures these days, but I guess I’m an old cranky weirdo like that. When, some day in the distant future, we get to 5th edition material I guess we’ll have to spend some time writing about how different it is from what we got in the 90s.

This version of Sigil may in fact be the most horrifying thing in the whole book, and most of this adventure takes place in literal Hell. Why are the color plates for Planescape so consistently terrible?

Perhaps the weakest part of the entire adventure is its central plot. A paladin has lost his sword, and due to various possible motives the PCs decide to retrieve it. Yet even here, there’s a lot of thought put into why the players might be interested or uninterested in getting back his magic weapon, and there’s consideration put into what to do if the players ignore the inciting incident entirely. After all, this is Planescape, and your party is probably not all shining lights of virtue. The adventure’s first chapter, which sets the macguffin-quest into play, is its most basic, but that’s fine. Things are going to get better soon, and in my experience while a macguffin can be overused, most players are looking for a reason to do something cool and happy to have a simple goal (there’s a reason this plot device is so common in adventures regardless of medium). That this is such familiar territory also makes it satisfying that there is in fact a good, if not particularly clever, twist to things, such that the entire quest is in some ways a ruse. This is simply good D&D material, taking what seems like a basic storyline and grafting onto it something extra. 

The players are told that the sword is in Dispater’s tower in the second layer of Hell, aptly called Dis because its ruler is creative like that. How they want to get there is up to them… but also only kind of, because it’s not like there are an infinite number of ways into Hell. Most likely, the players take hints given by the NPCs and head through the gatetown Ribcage in the Outlands, and from there find a guide of some sort who can help them get to the second layer. It’s possible they don’t, of course, and go straight to Hell, but probably not. There’s a lot of flexibility here, and the actual route of attack is going to depend on both your type of roleplaying game and how smart the players are. This is definitely one of those adventures where if you go in with an old school smash-everything-you-see mentality the players are going to die hard and fast. 

Assuming they do go to Ribcage, there’s a few ways for players to talk their way into Hell. The city has a lot of telling details and a unique government, but it’s hard to predict players’ decisions here, which is part of why this adventure works so well. The most likely possibilities are that they speak with a contact just out of town and hire a guide from him. Through this, they can pretend to be merchants. Or perhaps they pose as devilish supplicants and get a pass through the portal and a guide this way. Or they could just tell the ruler of the town that they hate devils as much as he does, in which case he’s also pretty much happy to help them, so long as they’ve got a good bribe at the ready. Ribcage is an interesting town for players to really figure out their approach, and has plenty of roleplaying opportunities. It’s here that things really open up, and the decision for how players take things here will vastly change their approach to the rest of the adventure. There are hints aplenty for all three solutions, and room for players and DMs to improvise others as well. 

Love the map, as usual, but does anyone show these to players given that there are number written on them? Seems unusable to me without some digital editing.

Chapter 3 is about how players make their way from Avernus into Dis. We’ve seen Avernus before in Well of Worlds, and while Fires reuses a few landmarks from that adventure, it also gives an explanation for why its version of Avernus is so different. “Also, no two travelers to Avernus will have the exact same experience, as the wasteland changes depending on what path a body takes. The map of Avernus provided with Fires of Dis applies to the path taken by the guides in this adventure and may not reflect landmarks as depicted on other maps of the layer.” And while I admit this is a bit hand-wave-y, given that the planes are physical manifestations of metaphysical concepts, I’m largely ok with this. The weird push-pull of Planescape having the most pulchritudinous maps in the history of the roleplaying games yet also making them frequently irrelevant is never more obvious than in this set, which includes not just a version of Avernus that only barely makes sense with the one in Well of Worlds, but also a map of Dis that DMs are told to completely disregard because the city is always under constant construction. I’m extremely glad they’re there, each a wonderful work of art I stare at with adoration, but how useful they are is highly questionable.


What do the players encounter in Hell? Well, that’s largely up to both them and the DM. For the most part it’s the usual grab bag of hellish events, though with one weird addition being the intervention of a friendly pit fiend who the party will see more of later. If wilderness adventuring is something your party is into, there’s plenty to enjoy here and it’s easy to add more if everyone’s digging it and wants to spend a few sessions smacking up devils. If not, then it’s just as easy to have the party skip to the end and get to Tiamat’s Lair. This is, to me, what I mean when I say that this is a very open adventure. It tells everyone they need to get from Point A to Point B, but every part of the middle is really up to the players (and here I include the DM as a player, as they are playing the game just as much as anyone else) and can take a lot of varying shapes. Yes, in order to complete the quest everyone does have to move to that endpoint, but that is also how stories work. Deal with it.


Admittedly, actually leaving Avernus for Dis is kind of… underwhelming. The portal to the second layer is in Tiamat’s Lair. Her Lair, though, for all that the game does to emphasize she’s a Power, is a whole lotta nothing. There are five caves for her chromatic consort dragons, and they’re all supposed to be more or less instant death, plus another room full of traps called The Cave of Greed. It’s all kind of worthless, and might be better replaced with, I dunno, almost anything else to be honest. I suppose it’s a pacing thing, and that after fighting through Avernus it’s too much to ask for players to then have a real dungeon before getting to the next town, but wow, Tiamat’s lair sure is lacking in anything magnificent, interesting, or remotely worthwhile. This is the only part of the adventure I suggest heavily revising if you want to run it today, unless you want the lord of evil dragons to come off as a complete putz. 

At least this portrait of Dispater is cheesy in a good way. Here he’s posing as a Heroquest boss.

Once they’re out of Avernus, the players arrive in the burning city Dis, which feels like a hellish space should (what with the heat and all) while also being unique. The city is always constantly under construction, and many of the obstacles and encounters here revolve around the city’s work crews. Actually getting to the tower is again quite open, though, with it being a puzzle that’s possible for players to quickly figure out on their own, but may require quite a bit of assistance from various ne’er do well NPCs. What I love best about this chapter is that it is essentially a lengthy portrait of this horrible city, where the skins of lesser devils are used as insulation against the heat and slaves are sentenced to infinite busywork like they’re working in an Amazon warehouse. Once again, how much time is spent here is really up to players and how intriguing or frustrating they find this area, but regardless this is the type of extreme detail about an area that was frequently missing from earlier adventures, a dozen pages about one location with something of interest for practically anyone. 

Dis’s tower is the adventure’s dungeon, but as we saw with In the Abyss, it’s not a normal one. In order to differentiate this from a typical crawl as well as to solve the difficult problem of filling up a 999-mile high tower, players are limited only to rooms they can teleport to with a randomly available magic device. Like a lot of things in the adventure, this is too convenient… but that’s also the point. Hopefully by now the players are becoming suspicious as to their successes, and the very idea that they’re tricking the devils. They’re being manipulated, and the devils want the sword to be retrieved. This is typified in a wonderful pull-quote from Dispater, all of whose dialogue is perfect to the point that I wish he were in more adventures. “You fought your way through Baator to find the Holy Avenger? Tsk, Tsk—all you had to do was ask.”  The other noteworthy thing about the tower is that while it is a dungeon, where players will go from room to room looking for their macguffin, it’s not really chock-full of fights. Most rooms aren’t even much of puzzles either, they’re more there for atmosphere. The Iron Tower is a horrible place, but if Dispater and his goons wanted to kill the adventurers they easily could. Instead, Dispater just wants to make them feel they’re achieving something so that they don’t suspect him of a complete double-cross. 

Fortunately, the actual page art is the usual Tony DiTerlizzi stuff. Sure, it’s reused to death at this point, but still evocative as ever. You can tell this Erinyes is sinister because she’s so bad at doing eye makeup.

The final chapter is then of course about just that: the double-cross. The players return the paladin’s magic sword to another gate town, Fortitude, where it’s an integral part of a ceremony to bring the town into Arcadia for reasons probably largely opaque to the players beyond the basics. That’s fine. They give the sword up for one of many different possible motivations, and it unleashes a devil (that they probably briefly saw in the Tower) who possesses the Paladin. Then the players need to fight this devil off while also convincing the townsfolk that maybe he’s being possessed and not just suddenly a homicidal lunatic. What’s so great about this is that it means retrieving the macguffin isn’t the end of the story. Rather, the sword’s possession makes sense of the entire adventure and ties it all together. Admittedly, there isn’t much the players can do to prevent this possession, but again I’m fine with that. If this is to be a story, there have to be twists, and that requires a bit of a magician’s force at times. Given that we’re working with an archdevil, that seems only natural. Like most of this adventure, it’s less about what happens than how players choose to deal with an unpreventable event, and that’s where their choice really enters into things. 


The Eternal Boundary may be more groundbreaking, and have done more to really cement what Planescape is in players’ minds, but I actually think The Fires of Dis is a better adventure. It has cities and wildernesses and roleplaying, it has dungeons and, well, dragons. It even has a pit fiend-possessed sword obsessed with calling everyone he sees “flaggoes,” I assume because it amused the designers as much as it did me. There’s personality here, coupled with fun ideas and some surprisingly (for an RPG supplement) good dialogue. I take a tiny bit of issue with how much of it, especially toward the end, centers around alignment, which as a concept feels pretty outdated given the rest of what Planescape is doing, but that’s easily ignored. In essence, Fires offers an adventure template for making a trip into Hell center around whatever a party enjoys doing, and to me that’s the best type of adventure. It definitely takes some effort on the part of the DM, as literally every section involves large decisions about what would make things the most interesting, but that’s by no means a bad thing. Fires is a gem of a release that has gone largely overlooked, and I suggest going back and giving it a read if you haven’t.

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