A Walk Through the Planes – Part 25: Umbra




Christopher Perkins never wrote a published, standalone Planescape release, but he is still arguably the most successful alumni of the setting, having taken over a lead story role for all of Dungeons & Dragons as of the setting’s fourth edition, and continuing in at least that role as of its fifth. He began publishing adventures in Dungeon as a teenager, and hasn’t quit contributing to the game since. In this, he’s very much the model of a second-generation RPG designer, someone who grew up with the products and knew which parts worked well and which didn’t, then funneling this knowledge into his own designs over the decades since. What’s more, at least from these early works there’s a lot of passion in his writing. This is a guy who’s obviously stoked about the game and has more ideas than he knows what to do with, which is both what makes Umbra so entertaining, and also more than a bit messy. It’s fun to read, but there are more plot threads than its not-at-all tight 21,000 or so words knows what to do with. 

Like Harbinger House, Umbra is focused on Sigil itself (in fact, it’s even moreso than that adventure which dips a little into the Outlands for its middling second act) and takes full advantage of In the Cage and The Factol’s Manifesto, using them to spawn an adventure across several city districts featuring both new and familiar locations. Its central quest reminds me way too much of my day job, in that it’s about the custody of a young girl.1  Her father wants to keep her in order to keep her hidden, as he’s ashamed of her half-demonic heritage and how it might affect his status with the Harmonium. His mother wants her in order to sell her to a life of miserable slavery with a demon who particularly relishes torturing half-demons (yikes!). And yet a third individual, a daemon, or by today’s modern parlance yugoloth, wants her in order to release himself from his forced imprisonment as the guardian to a portal. All of this is complicated by the fact that she may possibly be The One True Being, which is to say an ancient, thought-to-be-dead faction’s deific uber-savior who the entire multiverse was created to serve. 


If that sounds like a lot’s going on, that doesn’t even get into the number of weird, largely demonic henchmen and gargoyles—for some reason, there’s just a lot of gargoyles here, which I guess makes sense for Sigil given its pseudo-British architecture but the adventure implies that most of the ones from Sigil are in this one adventure—who switch sides seemingly at random. Fortunately, practically every NPC is given at least a bit of character (or at least a name), and although few of them are truly memorable, the adventure really allows space for players to either fight or roleplay their way through scenarios. It’s in fact quite possible to go through the entire affair with no fights at all if you’re exceedingly clever, or conversely to fight dozens and dozens of enemies should the PC’s decide to take on every challenge as a full frontal assault. 

DiTerlizzi’s depiction of one of the scenarios “dungeons.”

The most interesting part of the adventure is the way it grows the factions. While we know a bit about the history of this world, actually visiting the decaying former headquarters of one of these deceased factions, and seeing how their beliefs still carry power, is an excellent idea for a Planescape adventure. The Zactars aren’t the world’s most interesting group of believers, but the fact is Planescape’s factions are all forms of cults, and I’m happy to see new ones get tossed into the mixture. Zactar seems like it didn’t last because it’s too much just a basic cult based on a single charismatic leader espousing his dumb beliefs to the gullible, so we see how that sort of thing would function in Sigil vs. a more lasting system of philosophical/religious thought. Umbra herself, despite being the focus of the story and the One True Being, is weirdly basic and boring, especially considering that part of this adventure ends up being an escort quest where players may spend quite a bit of time with her. There’s a lot of focus on roleplaying here, but all of that is really going to come from having a good DM willing to flesh out all of Umbra‘s characters on their own.


Really, the meat of this adventure is giving players a space to deal with multiple fiends in whatever manner they decide upon, always with the knowledge that fiends shouldn’t be trusted (well, hopefully they have that knowledge). This includes not just the yugoloths trying to raise Umbra to her deific status, but also the tanar’ri wishing to whisk her to the Abyss and the baatorians working with the Harmonium, and even a few lower-planar hags for good measure. The seediness of Sigil gets highlighted throughout the adventure, the fact that even if you’re trying to do a good deed you probably need to converse with literal demons to get the job done. Because Umbra is for mid-level characters and the fiends at hand are on the weaker scale, this means that practically every situation presents itself as a possible fight, but not necessarily one, and players may find themselves allying with various fiends throughout. Yes, there are a couple dungeon-esque areas in the scenario, but they can largely be overcome through trickery and talking and thinking before acting. Basically, Umbra delivers what I want from a city-set scenario, offering many situations that can be confronted in multiple ways. It is pretty linear, but the openness of the city and the fact that players can easily wander off and do other things alongside this quest means that it’s not as much a straight-shot as it immediately appears to be. Not locking players inside a dungeon or equivalent space means that there can be a lot more creativity when it comes to actually dealing with challenges, even without being high level and having a ridiculous number of overpowered spells at your disposal. 

This hag is a possible ally, but that depends on whether you want to free the people she’s literally eating in front of you.

Aside from feeling like there’s a few too many double-crosses here and not as much personality in the NPC’s as there should be (if it feels like this scenario should be longer and that it’s too crammed together, that’s because it was chopped down 7,000 or so words with the edit), my main complaint here is about the cant. I haven’t touched upon Planescape’s notorious slang until now, largely because for the most part I like it. Giving a world its own speech patterns is good, and while I understand that some people find Planescape’s jargon grating, I tend to find the idea that a multiverse’s hub sounds exactly the same as our world which sounds exactly the same as Waterdeep is at least equally as silly a way of approaching language. That being said, it’s one thing to pepper in some cant every now and then, trying to fit it naturally into the world, and it’s another thing entirely to feature sentences like this:


The Cage ain’t a place for the clueless, cutter. It’ll make a basher go barmy before you can say, ‘Pike it, primescum!’

When people parody Planescape-speak, this is the sort of nonsense they’re talking about. And while I pulled out a particularly egregious example, Umbra is unfortunately littered with similar phrases all throughout. Perkins has a great sense of this world’s possibility and more creativity for adventures than he knows what to do with, but his dialogue is sure miserable. Fortunately, this is an easy problem to fix (just don’t use it when running the adventure), but it does bog down the reading a bit. While every now and then I’ve felt that Sigil cant has been a speedbump when reading through these books, Umbra is the first time so far in the setting that it’s been quite this obnoxious. 

DiTerlizzi’s art is absolute perfection when it comes to making fiends both menacing and goofy at the same time.

Given Umbra’s significance as the lengthiest adventure up to this point in the magazine, Dungeon went all out and commissioned Tony DiTerlizzi for both the gorgeous full-color art on the cover and a series of black-and-white interior sketches. These, plus crisp clear maps means that while the magazine’s formatting isn’t ideal (the text is pretty damn small), at least for where it is Umbra is given the star treatment. My sense is that people quite liked it at the time, and while it’s obscure due to the publication, it’s actually one of the better adventures for the setting, at least up until this point. It’s not a 100% necessary release, but given its inexpensive price I’d definitely prioritize finding a copy over something like The Deva Spark or even In the Abyss. Maybe it won’t blow any minds, but it achieves its goal, and even though it mentions quite a few supplements is clearly written for people unfamiliar with Planescape as a sort of introduction to the setting, making it a good starting point for players once they’ve arrived in Sigil (that it largely assumes PCs don’t have any faction loyalties only emphasizes its suggested introductory status). It’s perhaps less exciting than Harbinger House, but in many ways serves the same purpose without either breaking the setting’s rules or featuring any slightly duller b-level material. It’s enough that I’m excited to look into Perkins’ later releases, which I’m even less familiar with than this one. 


1. At the time of my writing this, I work in a law office, and custody cases are always a mess. 

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