The Rod of Seven Parts

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 32.5: The Rod of Seven Parts




I know it seems like I must’ve forgotten this adventure (and one more 1996 release that I haven’t covered yet, The Gates of Firestorm Peak, but that’s just because it didn’t come out until October of that year), but I confess that isn’t the case. Rather, it’s that I didn’t really want to write about The Rod of Seven Parts because its planar content is kind of bad, and as an adventure it’s a sprawling mess. It’s also nearly 250 pages long, which is quite a lot of reading for something you quickly realize isn’t very good. Were it not for my autism-driven love for completionism I would’ve just skipped it entirely in favor of better-written, more enjoyable reads… that being said, I was still a bit curious. The Rod of Seven Parts is unwieldy and largely unlike any other adventure I’m familiar with, which gives it at least some merit. After all, they don’t make adventures like this anymore, or before, or really even contemporaneous to this release. Which is probably a good thing. 

Skip Williams may or may not have invented the core idea for the Rod, which first appeared in 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry. Much of its confusing backstory arose a few years later in the 1979 first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, with language about the “Wind Dukes of Aaqa” and other such fantasy nonsense vaguely hinting at its history. Then there was a lengthy series of RPGA adventures titled The Dwarven Quest for the Rod of Seven Parts, before it popped up again with the second edition DMG with the idea that it was once a lawful construct, plus some of the nonsense about Miska and the Queen of Chaos. Like a lot of the game’s artifacts, its potential was obvious, but the actual execution seemed kind of lacking, consisting as it did of mostly sub-par Tolkien-ish blathering without really showing why you’d want to put it into your own campaign. 


The difficulty with all of the Wind Dukes and Queen of Chaos backstory is that it fits very poorly with the overall D&D mythos. The Vaati feel like they should be from the plane of air, or maybe some good-aligned plane? They’re not, they just chill out on Oerth and, umm, live for a very long time? I guess? In fourth edition or so they’d get more fleshed out, but this adventure’s author Skip Williams never really does a good job of defining who they are, and as a result they feel like a very dull magical race of NPCs who exist solely to prod along adventures. They are an embodiment of both law and air, which is pretty weird since elementals feel like they should be unconcerned with alignment, but then again that often isn’t the case already. They’re not quite elementals, and they’re definitely not celestials, they just seem like a dull gray bag of meh. I don’t know, the entire Vaati hidden race, given the existence of so many other planar races with quite developed backstories, just feels dumb to me. Ugh. 

The Hounds of Law are kinda cute, at least. I mean, sure, he’s just a dog, but I dig him.

Anyhow, the rod was a weapon the Vaati used to strike at the Queen of Chaos’s general, Miska the Wolf-Spider. Neither one are Powers, though she rules a layer of the abyss and is evil because, I don’t know, that was easier for design I guess. When the rod struck Miska, his chaos broke it into seven parts that teleported elsewhere, but he was wounded. It’s all very, very basic fantasy nonsense, the result being that instead of a quest to recover one McGuffin, the PCs need to recover seven. What’s more, the McGuffin has the irritating tendency to randomly teleport hundreds of miles away when its better abilities are used because I guess the adventure wasn’t taking a long enough time already. 

Rod is divided into four books, and this is probably the dumbest part of the adventure’s overall conception. Splitting up the material makes understanding how to run this whole affair a confusing mess, and major events and characters will be referred to in book one or two while the information for using them is hidden away in book three. You really have to not just have read through the entire adventure before running it, but to have carefully notated where the hell every bit of information is before each session, at least if you don’t want to be bogged down with searching through books. Comparing this to, say, a Pathfinder Adventure Path is to see just how much better we’ve all gotten at putting together roleplaying adventures over the intervening 25 years. Yes, Rod is a deluxe product with a cool box and fairly competent (though weirdly uninspired) maps, but usability is like the eighteenth priority in its design. 

However, Miska is just a mess.

That being said, I do have to give the adventure some serious credit as far as flexibility goes. Modern-style sandbox adventures really didn’t come of age until the 2000s, but Rod is incredibly open in its design. Getting to each of the rods is really going to be left up to each individual playgroup, and while there are quite a few dungeon crawls, there’s also a lot of opportunities for roleplaying. The adventure in fact begins with three different possible starts, and ends similarly. Williams intentionally made the adventure very modular and flexible, and it’s quite easy to stress the parts that are a better fit for your particular group. It’s the most open adventure I’ve read up through 1996, and while I’m sure there’s some even more so from earlier (there were a lot of weird indie rpg systems in the late 80s), it’s at least a definite step towards where we’re at with these things today. 


Ok, so that’s an overview of the adventure, but what about its planar content? Well that is, uhh, pretty weak, to be honest. If played to completion, Rod leads players to a strange demi-plane, to Pandemonium, and if things end up going badly at various points possibly to a layer of the Abyss or an alternate Prime Material plane (possibly several, if things go real badly). Yet despite that, its planar content feels half-baked. The demi-plane is neat, consisting of a reconstruction of how a building used to be in the past versus its current state of decay, but all of the other planar content never really does anything interesting. Most disappointing of all is the representation of Pandemonium. When players are ready to find the seventh part of the Rod, they need to journey to Miska’s prison, which is in Pandemonium for reasons that kind of make sense, sort of. Yet within the “cocoon of law” that imprisons him, the normal rules for the plane don’t apply, and characters more or less start right there. 

Pandemonium is a plane of endless tunnels filled with roaring winds that can drive characters mad. Fortunately for the PCs, they do not have to travel unprotected.

Rules are included for how the plane affects players and their items, and while it’s not the full Planescape rules, they’re not bad. However, it’s most likely that they barely have any effect at all given that either an NPC or the cocoon of law shields players from the plane. “The cocoon of law surrounding the citadel negates all special conditions that normally prevail on Pandemonium, with three possible exceptions.” Basically, priests are still screwed over by being so distant from their deity, and the ethereal plane is off bounds as it doesn’t connect to Pandemonium, but otherwise this is just like the Prime. And that’s always one of the more disappointing ways to use the idea of traversing to an entirely different reality. Had I skipped this release entirely, it wouldn’t have really mattered from a planar perspective, except to make for even more confusion when the Vaati and Queen of Chaos pop up again in fourth edition.


The overall effect of this planar negation is that while Rod of Seven Parts hints at a huge, cross-planar epic adventure, in reality it’s just a basic McGuffin quest. The backstory is middling at best, and most of its attempts at feeling big just don’t work well for me. Which is not the same thing as saying that there aren’t cool parts of the adventure, particularly the giant’s wedding, it’s just that even though this is supposed to be about fighting huge, multidimensional forces, it really feels much more insular than most short Planescape adventures. The stakes are big… for one particular Prime Material plane. Most of the multiverse can’t really be bothered, and the only reason why other tanar’ri even poke their way into it is to perhaps get the Queen of Chaos to join the Blood War. Needless to say, everything in that mega-adventure felt huge by comparison. 


My final point of irritation with Rod is that it has that same frustrating tendency that a handful of Planescape products do in speaking about law and chaos as if they’re definite, concrete things rather than amorphous concepts. This adventure is truly obsessed with “lawfulness,” but other than some easy cliches about how lawful people are fastidious or whatever, these concepts are neither well-defined nor very relevant to the adventure. I always expect it to start devolving into a bad comedy routine, telling me that “lawful people like to drive like this, while chaotic people like to drive like this.” Which isn’t even getting into the whole question of why the Queen of Chaos is evil and not neutral. These conceptions of values always seem childish to me, something I would’ve thought of as interesting in middle school but by high school had come to understand more about nuance and complexity than to picture even a fantasy-reality in such a blisteringly simplistic manner. Tl;dr: it’s just plain dumb.

The Citadel of Chaos sure is designed with all straight lines and a logical layout…

Do I think Rod is worth playing? No, not really. Reading through? Also no, definitely not, and I must admit to being thankful that every time the book hit on pages of second edition stats I could skim past huge sections without worrying about missing something relevant. Some of its ideas could easily be taken into your own campaign, but for the most part if I were looking to steal ideas I’d rather take from better sources. Rod may have been impressive for its time, but 25 years later it shows a dearth of creativity or usability, despite (and even because of) its voluminous length. 

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