On Hallowed Ground

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 35: On Hallowed Ground




A few months back when I covered Legends & Lore and Monster Mythology, it was in preparation for reading On Hallowed Ground. I was curious as to how much this newer work added to the already quite-extensive D&D mythology, which can be difficult to track since many changes appear in obscure adventures and Dragon articles that only the most-obsessive of fans will notice. As I noted before, deities have been a big part of the game system ever since 1976’s Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes, but I suspect most players use their own pantheons (at least, that’s how my own games have tended to go). Just as many games probably never even get into the question of who’s being worshipped, as not only does it require a certain level of roleplaying give-a-damn, if everyone’s a fighter or mage or rogue, then gods just don’t enter into things. But that’s not really true for Planescape, where you’re literally jumping around pantheons and representations of the afterlife. When belief is the basic building block of the world, gods come along with the territory. 

However, as noted by our-usual-source-for-basic-information Shannon Appelcline, “Throughout the first two-and-a-half years of its existence, the Planescape setting focused on the city of Sigil and the various planes, revealing them as places for adventure. Rather surprisingly, there was very little attention paid to the gods that made the Outer Planes [their] homes.” On Hallowed Ground is the answer to this problem, the big book of gods that finally tried to make sense out of the largely confusing mish-mash of pantheons and cultures that make up this world’s multiverse. And while it’s not entirely a success, it seems a fair assumption to make that this is less a result of the author’s intent and more a matter of how much time, effort, and printing resources TSR was willing to devote to this rather niche project. On Hallowed Ground is obviously a work of passion for Colin McComb, who has at this point earned a Most Improved Player award since his initial work on the disappointing Well of Worlds. 

This one doesn’t look too bad… until your eyes hit the bottom half of the drawing. Ugh.

The best part of On Hallowed Ground is its beginning, which tries to for once and all codify what the hell is actually going on within D&D‘s mythology. How do petitioners really work? What happens to a person’s soul if they die on, say, the ethereal plane? And what’s the relationship between the Lords of the Nine and the deities living in Hell? These are just a few of the questions the book sets out to answer in its first few sections, and for the most part it does a fine job. This first 60 pages of the book are really what’s most important about it, as it allows the space to explain, say, why petitioners are so interested in merging with their plane, or what happens when a mage casts a spell to speak with the dead. Maybe this isn’t vital to most people, but there’s no way I’m the only one who likes to know how things actually work behind the scenes.  


McComb, unfortunately, can’t fully make everything function rationally because, to be completely honest, it doesn’t. For instance, when he’s forced to explain why it is Powers can’t make their way to the Prime Material Plane, he’s left with a shrug and saying that they don’t let each other do that. Except, you know, when they do. Which for some Powers is all of the time? And things get even weirder when it comes to the clashing beliefs of the actual pantheons, which were never intended to mesh together well and, as a result, just don’t. Like a lot of Planescape books, McComb is forced to say that these are simply the mysteries of the multiverse, the ineffables beyond the ken of mortals, but for anyone looking for a truly coherent system, this will prove a slight disappointment. Then again, McComb is tasked with largely fixing the holes of a belief-system made by dozens of individuals over a period of decades, with a focus more on playability than on creating an actual religion. That he does as good a job as he did is impressive, and it’s very unlikely that any players in a Planescape game actually delve into these inconsistencies—even then it may just lead to joining the Athar. I have my quibbles about this first half of the book, but they’re small and really not meant to be fixable. 

I included this drawing because it’s the only one in the book I actually rather like.

The second half of the book, which is much longer, consists of rundowns of the various pantheons who make up the multiverse. Well, a few of them, at least. Information is included on the Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Celtic, Greek, Finnish, Norse, “Indian,” “Chinese,” and “Japanese” pantheons from the real world, as well as the elvish, dwarvish, and miscellaneous other pantheons unique to D&D. I added those quotation marks above because those are all huge countries without unified belief systems, glossed over here as “reclusive,” and in general calling a pantheon Indian rather than Vedic or Hindu feels pretty stupid. There’s some bad orientalism going on here, and though it’s still better than a lot of what you’d see from RPG supplements of this era, including pantheons for religions that still exist is just… not great, even aside from this. There are more than a billion Hindu believers, so acting as if it’s just a fantasy pantheon the same as the Greek or Elvish pantheons is inadvertently offensive, while grouping them together like this only contributes to weird marginalization of non-Western cultures. 


Anyhow, the book’s focus on these deities is a bit different from what we’ve seen before. Here, it’s mostly about the realms and which Gods players might actually interact with (as well as their major proxies). The focus is on making these Powers playable elements of a campaign, which is quite different from how we’ve seen them until now in second edition AD&D. This creates some interesting elements, such as a war between the Sumerian and Babylonian pantheons, or the explanation as to why real-world divinities have become interested in joining the Forgotten Realms pantheon. Really, the best material is what McComb added, the aspects that feel like a living part of this multiverse rather than a rehash of half-remembered mythology. 

Conversely, I nominate this drawing for worst in the book. And it’s even more pathetic considering it’s a full full page in size.

At the same time, this is a much less encyclopedic book than the previous deity-focused supplements. Obviously this is due to space, but the indexes at the end of On Hallowed Ground, which try to be broader and really mention all of the deities from any previous game reference, makes this abundantly clear. Now that I’ve read through both this and Monster Mythology in close succession, I find the latter to be a more interesting book because of how much of the former is either a rehash or simply an interpretation of commonly known myths. The deities unique to D&D, the ones owned by TSR, are weirdly given short shrift, which I find unfortunate because these are the ones I’m far more likely to use in my own campaigns. I’m pretty bored with, say, Zeus and Thor, but am likely to actually use a weird goblin god because they’re unique and interesting, and with this also more able to surprise players. The lack of surprise in so much of these classical pantheons is really what makes them a slog to read through.


One other unfortunate part of the book is that both its maps and illustrations are quite bad. Like, the worst we’ve seen so far in the setting, especially the maps, but especially the drawings, but no especially the maps. Neither Rob Lazzeratti nor Diesel worked on this product, instead it was Roy Boholst. His maps are garish, ugly, and really make the infinite majesty of godly realms in the outer planes feel sad and piddling. Most small towns seem more majestic than his depiction of Olympus, let alone the impressive realms we’ve seen before in the setting. And while the interior artwork comes largely from Planescape regulars/semi-regulars such as Adam Rex, Brain Despain, and Lubov, Tony DiTerlizzi’s work is nowhere to be found. Maybe it’s because the art director is Bob Galica rather than Dana Knutson, who was in charge of art for the setting during its early years, but my god is this a bunch of misfires. The book is all in full-color, resulting in quite an expensive volume with many full-page color plates… yet nearly all of them suck. Ok sure, some of them are only so-so rather than a disaster, but quite a few of them are vaguely embarrassing. If so much of Planescape’s art and design prior til now felt a bit too cool for school, On Hallowed Ground‘s seems childish and old-fashioned. Gotta wonder what the hell happened causing this behind the scenes—maybe with TSR’s bankruptcy just weeks away, their art budget disappeared? Whatever the case, the book sure ain’t a looker. 

For nigh-infinitely large and impressive, Olympus sure seems more piddling your average medium-sized town.

My other big disappointment with the volume is one that I’ve touched on before with other Planescape works, which is that it doesn’t cross-reference earlier publications well. The previous boxed sets about the outer planes all detailed multiple godly realms, so would it have been too hard to say, “For more information on Shan-ti’s realm, see: Planes of Conflict“? At this point, the amount of pages devoted to Planescape is a little bit daunting, and even I’m beginning to lose track of what’s been written about and where. Planning adventures at this point is starting to become a bit of a pain in the ass unless your players really like staying in one place, which also kind of defeats the whole point of exploring the multiverse.


Fortunately, in this second era of Planescape it does feel like even though the books aren’t cross-referencing, the creators are certainly making sure their works mesh together and describe the same world. McComb’s book on gods feels like a nice segue to Monte Cook’s The Astral Plane, and even weirder elements such as Anubis’ role out there are included. As the setting turned towards stranger, grander venues, with longer campaigns made for higher-level characters, it does start feeling more cohesive in a way that I quite appreciate. 

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