A Walk Through the Planes – Part 20: A Player’s Primer to the Outlands




Boxed sets haven’t been a part of D&D for a very long time, presumably for a good reason. I have fond memories of seeing dozens of them produced during the late-80s and 90s heyday of TSR, each filled with detailed art, intricate maps, and occasionally other little bonus bits (we’ll see some of these in Planescape’s Blood Wars box pretty soon). They felt special and expensive, much like PC game boxes from the same period with Microprose “feelies” and other goodies, and that is seemingly because they were. They were not cheap to produce, yet they weren’t actually that much more expensive for players to purchase than stand-alone books. As well as a lot of other publishing issues plaguing them at the time, the fact that Wizards of the Coast discontinued them entirely points to boxed sets as at least a tiny culprit in TSR’s demise. In short, they didn’t seem to be a sustainable product line, but while they were being made… my God, they were glorious. 

That being said, if you’re going to skip one boxed set for Planescape, A Player’s Primer to the Outlands is definitely the one to pretend doesn’t exist. It’s barely a boxed set anyhow, and it barely includes new material, and also it’s far more than barely embarrassing. I would love to know the full backstory behind its creation, but more than that I wish I could force TSR to make an Outlands supplement that was more useful and less cringe. 


I suspect part of its inception came from the “Player’s” part of that title. By this point, TSR had realized that it was significantly more lucrative to sell products to players, who made up a much greater amount of its user-base, than dungeon masters. This led to the blockbuster (by their standards) success of the Player’s Option books and alongside them the Player’s Handbook Rules series, a set of brown books filled with overpowered and game-breaking abilities that was nonetheless completely ubiquitous when I was in middle school. Everyone had at least one of these, and sometimes several so that they could toss together optional abilities for both their race and class into a superpowered monstrosity (a friend of mine who insisted on using the books to always play as a ninja elf was so overpowered it wasn’t even fun to play with him). They were quite a mess, to the point that Colin McComb later recorded a full apology video for what he did in The Complete Book of Elves. I also think DM’s kind of hated them, both because they unbalanced things and because they led to a lot of arguing about rules. But since they sold well, despite their many flaws they were in production for more than half a decade. 

Mimir’s were introduced as coming in many shapes and designs, but quickly became just “skulls.” I like Tony DiTerlizzi’s art for showing us both some of these other possibilities, and also how little regard this fellow has for them.

That this set was intended for players isn’t really what people remember about this release, though, which is the audio cd that makes up a third of the box’s contents. This is the only D&D audio CD I’ve ever listened to, and we’ll talk about its contents more in a second, but for now let’s jump over to that ever-useful and only occasionally-incorrect resource, Shannon Appelcline, for a quick history of this weird gimmick:

“A Player’s Primer to the Outlands” was labeled as an “Audio CD Accessory”. This was a line of products that had begun with First Quest (1994), an introductory D&D box that featured a Compact Disc (CD) [that] took GMs through a first role-playing session and also included soundtracks for two of the supplement’s adventures. The idea had then been used extensively in the AD&D Mystara line (1994-1995). However, there were also two non-Mystaran “Audio CD Accessories”, both published around May 1995: one was “A Light in the Belfry” (1995) for Ravenloft and the other was “A Player’s Primer to the Outlands” for Planescape. The “Audio CD” line would then end with the Mystaran Mark of Amber (1995) in June. [Note: all the seemingly random decisions as to when to use quotation marks vs. italicization is his, not mine.]

I’m not going to listen to the rest of these products because I value both my time and my sanity, but if what we hear in Primer is any indication of the usual result then I’m surprised this terrible idea lasted even this long. The Audio CD portion of Primer consists of 41 tracks, written by Colin McComb and recorded by… well, the actual credits are weirdly lacking, such that the cast is unknown. But in any case, I would certainly be embarrassed to have my name included here, so perhaps that’s a blessing for the cast. 

Here’s how the CD is supposed to work: this supplement introduces the idea of a Mimir, which is a sort of automated magical guide. The one that players end up with is specifically for research on the Outlands, so players can ask about one of the gate towns or other locations before heading out, thus allowing them to arrive forewarned of any possible complications. At least, this is the theory behind the Mimir, the reality of it is, uhh, I mean I keep using the word embarrassing, but that’s just because it seems so spot-on. But I guess I should work on my vocabulary here, let’s see. Shameful? Humiliating? Mortifying (ha, a pun for Torment players!)? Maybe we should just go back to basics and simply call it bad. 

Most of DiTerlizzi’s art is reused as usual, but at least there are a few new pieces. I appreciate how sinister this makes the Mimir look.

Each of the CD’s tracks is between a minute and four minutes in length, with most being about two minutes long. None of them actually offer any information about these locations that isn’t found elsewhere, and rarely do they include any information at all. Instead, they’re supposed to be recordings by the Mimir’s researchers (think Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy researchers but probably far more dead) about each of the locations. Occasionally this makes a little bit of sense, but just as likely the Mimir records a thief’s monologue while he’s in the middle of a job.


Now, there’s something to be said for atmosphere, and I’m a big fan of, say, putting on soft background music while playing a game so as to set the tone. But the tone for the Mimir recordings isn’t so much high fantasy as it is high camp. Regardless of the audio’s (lack of) usefulness, your reaction to what’s here will probably be something like how you react to local amateur dinner theater. Bad accents are constant, confused line readings and stumbling pronunciations even moreso. There’s overwhelming bombastic music with every track, and the number of narrators who get killed is both hilarious and idiotic. I would never, ever play one of these tracks for players, and given my love for the source material I don’t even find this to be funny-bad, instead it’s just depressing. Each of these miniature stories is another tiny disgrace. It doesn’t help that McComb is one of the setting’s weaker writers when it comes to dialogue, either. These stories would be mediocre on their own, but edited together with melodramatic music and the hammiest performances this side of a deli, the result is just so, so bad. 


But this is a boxed set, slim though it may be, and not just a CD, so what else does the Primer have to offer? Well unfortunately, the answer is not too much. Its single booklet is only 32 pages long, and while it offers an additional page or two of description about each of the gate towns in the Outlands, that’s also pretty much it. What’s more, much of this information is also derived from previous, more detailed descriptions. Ribcage and Fortitude received much more detail in Fires of Dis, while Plague-Mort was covered by Well of Worlds. What’s more, the original campaign setting also includes details on Automota, Beldam, Curst, Glorium, and Xaos. Yes, there are a few new details on these locations, but often not much (particularly compared with what’s featured in the adventures). Jeff Grubb does a good job of making the new towns interesting, and I particularly liked Hopeless’s dark pool of ichor and Ecstasy’s town of religious nuts sitting on pillars, but as a whole there’s only a dozen or so pages of actual new material in this whole boxed set. 

I dig the new maps, of course, but find how they were included highly questionable.

All other locations in the Outlands are given even shorter shrift, with just four pages devoted to everything else. Most of these listings take up literally two short paragraphs, and were described much better in the Campaign Setting. The only noteworthy addition is “The Hinterlands,” which answers a question that had been left weirdly silent until now. The Outlands are supposed to be as infinite as every other outer plane, so then what happens if you ignore the gate towns and keep going? The answer is that things get pretty weird:

Primes (and even planars) can forget that the Land’s an infinite plane. Between the circle of gate-towns and the rim, it stretches out forever, a wild, ever-changing, generally unexplored land. Some folks’ve heard talk of lost cities, new gates to unknown planes, even whole other realities if a body ventures far enough. 

Whatever there might be in the Hinterlands—life, realms, domains, gates, or towns—it’s still all pretty dark to folks closer to the spire.

As if Planescape weren’t already capacious enough, the hinterlands makes room for adventures that go beyond its normal cosmology. Unfortunately, the setting would never really explore this area (likely due to TSR’s untimely death), but I still think this idea is important. At this point there are hundreds of pages detailing the setting, yet if anything it’s feeling more unknowable and interesting as it progresses. The hinterlands are an idea ripe for adventuring, and though they’re one of the set’s few bright spots, at least it is quite bright. 


The last part of this underwhelming set is yet another of Robert Lazzaretti’s lovely maps. Yet even this manages to underdeliver, as unlikely as that sounds. Yes, the set contains what’s technically a new map, as it’s been redrawn, but essentially the set’s map of the Outlands is already available as, and nearly identical to, what’s included in the Campaign Setting. Along its sides are maps for the gate towns at the four corners, but even so two of these were already included in previous adventures. Lazzaretti’s work never disappoints me, and there are some excellent additional maps in the book itself, including ones for Automota, Bedlam, Ecstasy, and Hopeless. But most of the gate towns remain unmapped, which is particularly irritating considering the returns to Plague-Mort and Ribcage. I can’t be the only person who wishes that at least the set had been half a dozen pages longer and full of these maps, but given the paucity of printed material here I guess their absence shouldn’t come as a surprise. 

And that’s all there is. Every other boxed set for Planescape feels like a treasure trove. I may have piddling complaints about them, but they’re all grand and expansive, clearly beloved by their designers. Instead, A Player’s Primer to the Outlands is, well, it’s there, and at least the written material isn’t actively bad. It does add a bit, though in terms of actual value I think it’s less than that issue of Dragon Magazine I took a look at a few weeks ago. It’s by far the cheapest set for the setting, but there’s a reason for that, and it remains mostly just an odd historical curiosity. I think the biggest surprise to me is that Mimir’s became so beloved by fans, considering this is how they were introduced. Maybe more people are into local dinner theater troupes than I thought? Who can say.

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