Planes of Conflict

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 28: Planes of Conflict




Planes of Conflict is the last of Planescape’s 1995 releases, and since it also completes the big set of boxes focused on the outer planes, it feels like a fitting end to the setting’s first era. There have been plenty of growing pains as the writers figured out what the hell Planescape actually is, particularly with the departure of one of its major architects, David “Zeb” Cook, soon after it began. At the same time, we also see the setting beginning its transition from the all-hands-on-deck approach of its early years, in which every release seemed assigned at random to whichever TSR employees happened to be nearby, and into something more focused. Conflict is the first appearance of Monte Cook in the setting (aside from a quick thank you note), and from here on it’s really him and Colin McComb (with a bit of Ray Vallese sprinkled in), who seemed to be steadily improving as a designer after the middling Well of Worlds, that took the series’ reins. From 1996 onward, it’s largely their setting. And trust me, this is a good thing.

Conflict had perhaps the most difficult task of the three sets, considering that wishy-washiness isn’t really a compelling selling point compared with extremism. The planes it covers include some of the most boring ones in existence, as well as areas that until now were extremely ill-defined. Sure, Limbo’s write-up wasn’t terribly good in Planes of Chaos, but it’s inherently an interesting area, whereas Bytopia is pretty hard to make anything but flat. While that’s obviously a large part of why the planes were divided up in this manner for releases, so as to spread out the upper planes’ doldrums as much as possible, there’s only so much that can be done. The set comes with five books, including another fairly rudimentary and pointless “Player’s Guide” to these planes (if anything, it’s a negative for reasons I’ll mention below), a book focused on the upper planes, one on the lower, plus a book of adventures and yet another monstrous supplement. I preferred how things were put together with Planes of Law, but given the number of planes and the cost of printing individual books this division is understandable. 


The upper planes’ booklet is titled “Liber Benevolentiae,” because I guess Latin is a common language in the outer planes (wait, what?). The set was split by Dale Donovan and Colin McComb, and unfortunately for Donovan he was given the short end of the stick and left with these ones, though that does still include the Beastlands, which is one of those planes that doesn’t really make sense with its alignment, but we ignore that because at least this leads to something relatively exciting. Gary Gygax originally called this plane the “Happy Hunting Grounds,” in a very awkward homage to plains Indians from North America, but fortunately this was changed to the Beastlands with the idea that the people happily hunting are the plane’s petitioners… and you’re the prey! Mwahahahahaha!!!!! Or whatever.

The Beastlands has leopards and might let you get a leopard tail yourself. Best plane ever?

The Beastlands is all about animals and wilderness, such that it has no real towns, visitors gradually gain animal traits, and its petitioners are all animals who can talk to you if they feel like it, though usually they don’t. There’s a new sect there, the Verdant Guild, who wants to keep the natural world natural and so are just kinda druids who aren’t necessarily literal druids, and also the Vile Hunt, who kill animals who can talk, i.e. petitioners, because they’re into being evil and killing animals, I guess. That’s right, fucking poachers even in the outer planes. The plane has three layers, one of which is perpetually noon, one of which is perpetually dusk (also dawn, really, though that’s never mentioned), and one of which is perpetually night to the point that all sources of light become less effective and fire can’t light. 

Unlike the other good-aligned planes, the Beastlands feels like it has a lot of possibilities from the get go. Ok sure, the animalistic nature of things seems like it should make the plane neutral, not good, but whatever—animals are good, and anyone who doesn’t agree with this can fuck off. The difficulty, though, is how to make this area not just like an infinite span of prime material wilderness. Donovan does an… ok job with this, though I’m not super impressed. On the first layer he gives us the Forbidden Plateau, which is basically a Jules Verne-esque dinosaur reserve, which I quite like, as well as a sort of camp-spot/village, an extremely boring centaur realm, and more information about a site called The Standing Stones that previously appeared in the single worst adventure from Well of Worlds—which tries to give the place some context but mostly just reminds me of how bad that module was. The next layer isn’t much better, with just a realm of flying elves and the cat lord’s prowl, neither of which are bad, but they’re both pretty much what you’d expect. Oh, and some werebears are hanging there, too. The final layer has more of interest due to a plot involving the theoretical whereabouts of an ancient red dragon, which is really the hiding place for a pair of star-crossed angel/devil lovers. But aside from this and a lair for storm giants to yell about, mostly this plane is kind of up for DM’s to make something of. There’s definite potential here, and more than a few plot threads to follow, but at the same time it doesn’t really surprise you. It’s an easy-to-use plane for a lot of adventures, but not all that noteworthy in and of itself. 

Weirdly, there’s a lotta ballooning in this set. Yay?

Unfortunately, Bytopia is far worse, and perhaps the single most boring outer plane, at least well on par with Mount Celestia and Ysgard, the worst from the last two sets. The plane consists of two layers linked together by mountains, which serve as kind of stalac-tites/mites holding the whole place together. One side is basically just a big farmland while the other is mostly a lot of mining, and both of them are largely inhabited by stereotypical gnomes. Donovan’s attempt to make this land interesting include giving it a planar elephant (i.e. baku) graveyard, an adamantite dragon, and a site literally known as “The Ridiculous Tower,” but none of it is very memorable and you can see some real strain to even offer this much material. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think everywhere in a fantasy plane should be interesting. If they were, then there’d be a lack of differentiation, and it requires something like Bytopia to give us a contrast with, say, Gehenna. I’m glad that there’s this much material about it, and that it exists as an option for players and DM’s. A short session or two set here is a nice contrast for a campaign that’s bouncing around much more eventful places, so there is a real purpose to this type of boredom. None of which, however, is to say that this is an exciting chapter, even for the gnomiest of gnomes. 

With Elysium, the so-called restful plane, Donovan had if anything an even greater challenge than with Bytopia, as this is the plane of pure, unadulterated good. Fortunately, he cribbed from a trick that Planescape had tried earlier with a layer of Arborea, which is giving the plane an interesting layer rather than one that really fits with the alignment. Three of the plane’s layers are pretty much what you’d expect. The City of the Star is surprisingly exciting for a city in a good-aligned world, and there’s a chance of conflict with a storm of evil visiting the fourth layer, but really it’s all about “Belierin, The Forgotten Layer.” This is a sort of prison layer for mythical beasts or other monstrosities who are simply too difficult for the celestials to deal with. Originally it seemed to have been established due to the presence of an ur-hydra, the creature from whom all other hydras were derived, but aside from a prison for him it’s kind of the big shame hole for the whole plane, perhaps all of the upper planes. Why this would leave it still as part of Elysium is… questionable, but oh well, it adds a very interesting location for possible quests, and that really trumps all else as far as I’m concerned. 

I like DiTerlizzi’s hydra a lot because he’s one seriously thick boy.

The other part of Elysium that really entertained me was Donovan’s attempt at making The Deva Spark make sense within the universe’s continuity, which is, frankly, not an easy task. This adventure involved a realm with an ill-defined power, now retconned so that “It’s one of the few great mysteries of the plane that no power openly claims this realm.” Essentially, he puts a lampshade over that module’s utter stupidity, and instead turns its poor storytelling into a plot point. I still find the idea of making progress by doing good deeds ridiculous enough that I’d remove it from my version of this plane (much as I would with Hades’ own movement rules; they’re both impractical in a way that sounds interesting in theory but seems certain to be tedious in practice, especially if groups spend more than a session in these planes), but I appreciate that Donovan manages to include parts of these planes we saw in earlier, disappointing modules and somehow make them worthwhile. I find the question of what’s really going on with this realm and its nearby environs more interesting than anything in that entire module, and as a result of this and other choices Elysium manages to be one of the most exciting upper planes, filled with a surprising amount of plot hooks and mystery. 

Really, the name for Planes of Conflict could just as easily have been “Planes the game largely neglected until now,” but while the upper planes have quite a few limits placed on them, Colin McComb’s versions of the lower planes can go a lot weirder. “Liber Malevolentiae” is filled with locations players might want to actually visit on their adventures, and accordingly it feels a lot less padded—the goal of giving all outer planes a sort of parity in these sets makes sense, but let’s be honest, in terms of where stories are likely to actually take place these are the planes that matter. 

Instead of a balloon, this guy chose to swing on a rope. It’s a choice, certainly.

I will admit, I am familiar with how Carceri’s layers are supposed to work, but at the same time I don’t really get it. On the one hand, it’s nested circular orbs like going through the layers in a jawbreaker, but on the other hand these orbs are infinite in number. However, you’re supposed to be able to travel between these interior orbs without having to jump to the outside layer… at least, that’s what I think is going on? Probably? More than anywhere else, this version of a physically impossible location hurts my brain, but that’s ok. Interesting layouts for the planes are cool, and things being impossible is fine too. It’s just that this one somehow twists my brain into pretzels, so while I appreciate the creativity involved in the design, actually moving between layers here (aside from through portals) seems pretty funky. 


Regardless, it’s a plane with a somewhat unique theme, even though it doesn’t exactly make sense. Carceri is the prison plane, and with this is supposed to be difficult to get out of, though really that’s up to the DM to make happen as the actual rules about this are no different here than anywhere else. So yes, there’s a big prison here, and it’s also the plane where the Grecian titans are stuck following their war with the Olympian deities, but unfortunately there isn’t a ton of activity going on here otherwise. Six layers and a really weird cosmography means that much of this chapter is spent explaining the weirdness of each layer, and with this we end up with a lot of generality rather than specific information about realms or locations to visit. More than most planes, it feels like DMs are left on their own to create adventure hooks here and reasons for players to visit, though due to the overall theme those aren’t terribly difficult to come up with. I actually like Carceri quite a bit, with its greheleths and weirdo jawbreaker planets and attitudinally strange petitioners, it’s just that the plane needed more space than what it was given to really feel alive. It’s a little sad to me that Planescape gave places like this more detail than anything either before or since, yet even so in cases like this it’s not nearly enough. 

A lotta great images I could’ve chosen for Gehenna, but I just love the arcanoloths and put them in whenever I can find an excuse.

Gehenna also requires quite a bit of layer explanation, given the deadliness and differentiation between its four “furnaces,” but even with this the rest of it is still much more developed. It has little areas like the Abomination’s Lair that could easily serve as interesting one-off adventures if players happen to be in the area, but also worthwhile realms like Sung Chiang’s Teardrop Palace and the Tower of the Aracanoloths. I also really love Nimicri, a town made up of a giant mimic who tries to lure people away from the inhospitable plane to his warm, loving embrace… and stomach. We’ll see a very similar concept used later as a demiplane, but Nimicri gets points for both originality and goofiness. All four volcanoes feel like they have their own ecosystem and reason for existence, and it’s not just a plane of generalized evil. The town Portent, for instance, may exist as the body of one of the first yugoloths. Every city here has something going on below the surface, and as a result this previously-neglected plane becomes vital and worth visiting. 

The final plane covered, and the final of the outer planes period, is Hades, which Planescape renamed The Gray Waste, though because that’s kind of stupid and unmemorable it would be revereted right back by third edition. What I do quite like about Hades is that here Planescape and McComb took evil in a different direction. By now, we’ve seen both literal hell and an infinite-horror apocalypse plane called The Abyss, so how do you top those in terms of evil misery? The answer is you don’t, instead you find something else, and what they decided on as the essence of Hades is hopelessness. The plane literally sucks color and life from those who visit it, even their memories, and with this its version of evil is like dealing with clinical depression. As someone who suffers from that, I find this to be a strong choice for misery, so well-played. 

Hades is nice and cheerful.

I find real world mythologies to be the least-interesting part of the Planescape universe, at least when they’re left alone and not bashing into each other in strange new ways, and unfortunately Hades focuses a lot on this, not just with the titular underworld but also realms for Hel from the Norse pantheon and Arawn of the Celtic pantheon. Add in Hecate, and really your appreciation of this plane is going to depend a lot on how much you like running things in these mythologies. More interesting to me is the town Corpus, a strange town literally made up of people. As in, the people embody every building and object: 


The whole place consists of the living bodies of petitioners and planars who chose to join the town. Every structure in the town is “constructed” from joined human and demihuman flesh. 

Faces stare out from the walls, some in agony, others just blank. Some bodies twist around corners or form supporting beams, while others have the relatively easy job of being street cobbles. 

It is a deeply weird place, and I’m all for it. People join the town in order to avoid the plane’s hope and memory-sucking influence, but I’m not so sure the alternative is much better. Yes, it offers a way to avoid the effects of the plane’s fascinating and plot hook-y “Lodestones of Misery,” but you become a part of the city, which seems far, far worse. 

I appreciate that given the space crunch of fitting six planes into the box only the broad gists of these planes is repeated between the Player’s Guide and the DM books, but this has the unfortunate effect of spreading the information out awkwardly such that some of the more interesting locations on these planes are absent the books DM’s will most likely reference. It’s a poor choice, and as always it’s impossible not to wish there were an eventual compilation book that wrapped all these boxed sets up in a more usable fashion. Likewise, I also appreciate the decision to only include four slightly longer adventures rather than the list of half-assed plots we saw in the first two boxed sets, though given how poor these are… maybe I’m wrong. 

DiTerlizzi’s Cerebus is kinda… pathetic, really.

The first of these adventures, “Into the Land of the Dead,” is particularly bad, and my brain couldn’t help but make the connection between the “special thanks to Bill Slavicsek” and its contents, even if that’s unfair and he had nothing to do with it (McComb has certainly designed his fair share of clunkers for the setting). This adventure involves taking a low level party into Hades and begging the god to let a person return to life, which not only violates the rule that Powers shouldn’t be casually dealt with, it also makes going to the underworld super crazy easy. This adventure feels pulled straight from Tales of the Outer Planes, and I mean that as a big insult. 

The second adventure, “Militancy Justifies the Means” is better, giving an example of how to make something happen of interest in Bytopia (hint: it means bringing something in from elsewhere to wreck the joint), but I’m not so keen on the other two adventures either. One involves a prison break out of Carceri, which feels both not very fleshed out and like it’ll make for a pretty terrible situation for players afterward regardless of whether they succeed, the other of which involves visiting the Forbidden Plateau on the Beastlands, i.e. that place with all the dinosaurs. This requires both for players to be extremely high level, and for patience with a plot that doesn’t really make sense. Demons kidnapping dinosaurs is a good idea, but the reasoning here is pretty much straight nonsense. 

Behold the Buraq in all his hideousness. This is certainly the most terrifying piece of art in the set, maybe in all of Planescape, maybe in all of everything.

Finally, we come to the Monstrous Supplement, written by Monte Cook, and so a damn good read even if the monsters aren’t exactly what you’d call core. There’s a marked contrast between what’s here and the Planescape Monstrous Compendium II, which had a lot less storytelling. Here, nearly every entry is a piece of creative writing, such that even the utterly hideous buraq is entertaining to read about. My favorite inclusion is the Gautiere, a race betrayed by their God and with this exiled through plot machinations to Carceri. If your party lands on that plane, I’d set up an encounter with some of these just to bring their story into focus, as it’s just excellent planar lore. The Quesar, whose story is also partially told in the Elysium section, is equally worth bringing into any campaign, even if they’re not quite as original (they’re story’s kind of a standard sci-fi trope). None of the monster inclusions are totally bad, either, it’s just that the rest of them lack that extra special something these two races have. 


Then we arrive at the maps, and fortunately here the set outdoes itself with the return of my favorite and yours, Rob Lazzeratti, drawing all six planes in full color beauty. This also means that there’s six map-backs filled with information as well, including a surprisingly detailed map of the City of the Star, a complete-ish version of the Sects so far mentioned by Planescape products, a rather nifty map of Khin-Oin (the Yugoloths’ tower built on spine of a murdered god), some more yugoloth information, a map of Sung Chiang’s Teardrop Palace, and an updated cosmographical table that does its best to mention every location so far detailed by any Planescape product. Whew. 

You’ve gotta love Hades’ funky planar arrangement.

In all, this box, like its predecessors… is pretty good. It is not great, sadly, and that is one of the disappointments of Planescape. It always felt like the setting could use a second edition, one that built off from these first ideas for the outer planes into something more complete. Planescape still feels a bit unsure of itself and directionless, and I think this comes from the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen issue mentioned earlier. When it became largely the work of two writers, the setting improved and gained some focus, but at the same time what they created was still reliant on these early works that sometimes struggled to figure out what made for good material. 

I don’t want to bash it all too much, but I must admit that my memories of these sets were a little bit too positive, imbued with nostalgia. They are worth having, Planescape’s boxes all being gorgeous and filled with at least a few surprising ideas, but at the same time they also feature plenty of repetition and information any DMs could’ve easily created themselves on the spot. Really, by now I’m ready for this foundational era of Planescape to be finished. The setting finally feels established, but the authors still feel unsure of what to do with this infinity of infinities and how to tell compelling stories in this space. Fortunately, that’s going to be changing very soon. 

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