Doors to the Unknown

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 38: Doors to the Unknown




For the final time1, we’re returning to an adventure from the Planescape setting’s author who has inadvertently become my nemesis, Bill Slaviscek. This is his fourth appearance in this series, and third time with Planescape, and every time he crops up he somehow manages to miss the point of what’s fun and good about interplanar adventuring in an entirely different way. In The Deva Spark, he came up with a dumb idea for an adventure in a version of Sigil that’s best-forgotten, and ended up permanently staining Elysium with difficult-to-implement ideas. Awesome. Harbinger House was much better, but still centered around reducing the Lady of Pain’s power significantly and with this breaking some of the fundamental rules of the setting. And sadly, this was so essential to the adventure that I’m yet to figure out a good way to remove it and extract the material here I do quite like. Doors to the Unknown brings in its own problems, which are pretty unique to it in that structurally it’s kind of a mess, and increasingly so such that I’m going to guess that very few parties ever actually reach the conclusion. It initially seems pretty good, but gets lazier and lazier as it goes. Again, awesome. So let’s dive in. 

Every 500 years, four “blink” portals appear in Sigil for two months. For reasons that are truly unmotivated and poorly explained, a few individuals, including Estavan of the Planar Trade Consortium, The Will of One followers trying to resurrect Aoskar, and the Society of Locked Doors (who want to close off Sigil from outsiders because, umm, bigotry), want to explore what’s on the other side of these portals. All of these groups are quite interesting… as they’re represented in Uncaged. Here, though, they’re focused on these doors simply because someone’s gotta keep this plot going if players lose interest. None of these interested parties actually matter, instead what does is that there are these four doors, and in the adventure’s prologue a dwarf’s prophecies predict that they will lead to “the path to tomorrow’s better shores.” They don’t, but that’s only one of the many problems with this adventure, which is pretty good at setting up mysteries and absolutely piss-poor when it comes to resolving them.

Tony DiTerlizzi only draws a few new pieces for each release at this point, but at least he tends to have a good time with them and goes all-out.

The real deal behind these doors is that they just pop up because. There’s no conspiracy here, and all of the Aoskar talk about reviving the dead god is unfortunately a red herring. The cult surrounding his revival had been part of the campaign setting almost since its inception, but this revival is no closer to occurring now than it was before the adventure, regardless of Fell’s prominent role as an NPC and Aoskar’s symbol literally being a gate key. And Estavan’s involvement? It makes, if anything, even less sense and seems stapled on simply because Slaviscek happened to have a copy of Uncaged lying around the office. None of the NPC’s are used well here, and in fact they lack much of the personality they did before. Estavan is literally hanging out in a hallway in order to give the players a quest, even though he doesn’t really fit in the hall and explaining how or why he’s there would be more complex than any of the mysteries of these doors. In essence, the plotting surrounding these four doors is nonsense, despite taking up nearly half of the adventure’s 64 pages. It seems like there may be something going on, a mystery, a conspiracy, with all of these well-known NPCs circling around the adventure, but their machinations are all on the surface and nothing actually moves forward or resolves aside from the story introduced here. This is probably why the adventure at first seems like it has something interesting to offer, before shedding these elements completely by its end.


But then, the adventure’s actual story is… also pretty bad. There’s an extremely powerful celestial, known as a Mercurial, who was never introduced before this adventure and will never be heard from afterward, and they have shapeshifting powers because why not. One of them went evil, and is imprisoned behind one of these four doors, hoping to escape and regain full power. But, well, there are plenty of big evils out there in the universe, and this celestial is just one more. In fact, despite all the damage he supposedly did when freed in the past, Mercurials can’t be all that powerful or the Lady of Pain wouldn’t let them into Sigil. Their stats seem roughly on par with other high-level celestials, which is to say definitely not someone you’d want to fight, but also not going to wreck the multiverse on their own. Frankly, I don’t get what the big deal about them is. 

I almost added in Adam Rex’s version of this dwarf for context, but decided not to as the comparison was perhaps overly mean. Enjoy DiTerlizzi’s instead.

One of the strangest things about this adventure is that while it is one, linked adventure, such that the fourth part is completely inaccessible without completing the first three, it’s also not supposed to be played straight through. Rather, Slavicsek tells us to intersperse this in the middle of other things, because I guess it’s not exciting enough for players to devote themselves to it? The sad thing is that he’s kind of right. 

So what do players find on the other side of these four doors if they decide to (or more likely are cajoled until they do) explore them?  Well I refuse to use the cliche that it’s a mixed bag, not only because it’s way overused, but also because the whole bag here isn’t all that great. Really, it starts with the best and goes downhill from there. Behind the first door is Thuldanin, the second layer of Acheron. More precisely, it takes players to the inside of one of Thuldanin’s cubes, which like the rest of the layer is filled with rusting items lost from the rest of the multiverse. However, by limiting everything to the inside of a cube, it means that this is more like a little demiplane than a real trip to Thuldanin. Unfortunately, this is true for all four adventures, as they all lead to extremely limited areas. This cube is a sort of dungeon, and there’s exploration to be done there, but only a session worth. It’s not huge, the only special rules are kind of annoying, and on the whole it feels introductory. Which is fine for a first adventure; the problem being that all four parts of Doors feel largely the same. 

I am quite digging Brian DeSpain’s work though, and wish he contributed more.

What feels like a cheat for this first adventure is that it’s within such a closed space, and if anything this has only felt more like a cheat as time has passed and in general adventures have become more open. Unfortunately, behind the second door lies a sealed cave in Agathion, the lowest layer of Pandemonium. So basically, you can repeat everything I said in the previous paragraph, only with the issue that there are even fewer inhabitants or things to do here, especially if you discount that half of the encounters are only illusory anyhow. There’s a wounded Mercurial, that dwarf from earlier, and, for reasons truly never explained, an insane black dragon who the adventure discounts even the possibility of fighting. Oh, also some skeletons and a retriever, but that’s literally it. Which I’m somewhat fine with, because the vaults of Agathion should be just that, sealed vaults, but it’s disappointing when there’s practically nothing else to the adventure. 


The third doorway is somehow far more disappointing than these first two. It takes players to Logicus, a strange Prime Material plane where magic barely works and the inhabitants are largely mechanistic pseudo-humanoids. This sounds like it should have some great possibilities, but this entire plane consists of four small platforms floating in the air, one of which is literally just a landing pad. That’s right, while previously our understanding of Prime planes was that they consisted of an entire world like Krynn from Dragonlance or Faerun from Forgotten Realms, here we’re given somehow a smaller, less-detailed space than within a single cube on Acheron. There’s very little to actually do here, and the inhabitants are mostly just modron knock-offs, except for the planet’s leader who’s a literal modron (though not a rogue one? Wait, what???). The most disappointing thing to me about Logicus is that I really, really like the idea of Planescape consisting not just of visiting the outer and inner planes, but also strange Prime Material planes, but this as an example is just disappointing. It feels like maybe Slaviscek got tired or something and just used the first idea that came to him? I don’t know, in any case this adventure is a significant step down in terms of both quality and detail from the first two. 

This picture makes sense within the adventure, but just by seeing it you’d guess that something completely different is going on here than what’s actually afoot.

If players go through all three of these first doors and either decode a weird gate key or, you know, just wait around for someone else to open the fourth door for them, they get to reach the legendary “hyper-real” last area. By now, this has been talked up throughout the book, and is clearly meant to be something extra special. Which, I’m sad to report, it sure as hell is not. 


This hyper-reality, or fourth-level of reality, or whatever bullshit Slaviscek calls it at the moment, is just… Mount Celestia. Where on Mount Celestia? Well, uhh, Beldaari. What, you haven’t heard of that location before? It’s, uhh, the realm of an unnamed power, which might sound familiar to anyone who hated this premise from Elysium in The Deva Spark. Colors are brighter here, and damage is doubled, but mostly it’s just Mount Celestia that’s maybe slightly shinier than normal. It’s particularly weird to me that the Mercurials aren’t from, say, Mercuria, the second layer of Mount Celestia, but that would be too definite, coherent, and sensible for Slaviscek, instead it’s located in “a secluded region of Mount Celestia. … It doesn’t matter what layer the realm occupies, since it could be any one of them (or all of them) at the power’s whim.” Talk about a lame cop-out. 

Adam Rex’s Mercurial. This is the dude that has the multiverse quivering in fear.

It’s particularly amusing that Colin McComb went to so much effort detailing the deities of the multiverse in On Hallowed Ground, and Wolfgang Baur did his best to detail Mount Celestia in Planes of Law, but all of this goes ignored in the same way that the overall logic of the planes and Planescape does in Slaviscek’s prior adventures. Dale Donovan did a pretty impressive job in integrating Slaviscek’s bad ideas from before into Planes of Conflict as well, but in this case the hyperreal realm is just going to remain an awkward piece of planar lore that never fits well with the rest of the setting. Which I suppose is true to Slaviscek’s overall legacy, but doesn’t mean it annoys me any less. 

All four of these adventures are supposed to be run over a period of two months, which is particularly strange considering that it begins quite low-level (as low as two) and ends quite high (as high as level 10). This timeline simply doesn’t work with how leveling functions in RPG’s, and I don’t just mean in second edition AD&D, I mean in pretty much anything. As a result, it’s another one of those modules where I have a difficult time imagining many people actually ran it to completion. There are plenty of interesting-ish ideas here that could be cannibalized, and most of the locations and character motivations could be expanded such that they’d be more exciting and logical, but that also defeats the purpose of printed adventures. Running this as-is seems like a surefire disaster, and likely to lead to a ton of hasty and imprecise DM improvisation and rationalization. 

I suppose this adventure doesn’t deserve Rob Lazzaretti’s fantastic work like the boxed sets do, but damn, Roy Boholst’s stuff does not do it for me.

The production half of the adventure is also a bit wonky. There are a lot of maps, but their quality is… not wonderful, and none of them are viewable by players because they’re all filled with numbers and markings. The one for Thuldanin is extremely difficult to read because it’s printed entirely in light-brown (why?), while the one for logicus is impressionistic and extremely imprecise, filled with parts that seem like they might be interesting to explore but aren’t labeled. And if you purchase this as a PDF, you’re likely to run into even more trouble, as a couple of the dabus-style rebus puzzles are printed on the inside fold of a folder and not reprinted in digital versions (at least the ones that I’ve seen). As with the rest of the adventure, there’s more ideas here than space, and it all ends up feeling haphazard—while certainly professional, it’s far from an ideal presentation. 


On the interior, things are even worse, with one dialogue box simply going unprinted and plenty of typos along the way. DiTerlizzi seems to have been promoted to largely just drawing large splash pages, which I’m ok with, but I don’t particularly care for Adam Rex’s work, which looks amateurish to me and doesn’t mesh well with DiTerlizzi’s (Brian DeSpain’s contributions are also quite good, they’re just not as frequent). My biggest frustration is that an entirely new creature that’s introduced in the adventure, the Cortecelestial, not only goes barely described (“a monstrous beast”—why Slaviscek, how precise of you!), there’s also no drawing to do a better job of illustrating what it is he’s trying to include. Everything about this creature is half-baked, but better editorial direction as far as what needed to actually be drawn would’ve helped the entire adventure immensely. In general, all of these production choices make Doors to the Unknown seem like a rush job, with the creators perhaps trying to get it off to the printer print before the end of the year when TSR’s creditors would no longer keep publishing their work. 

Fortunately, this is the last Planescape adventure that’s a disappointment, and in fact from here on out every major release feels like a labor of love. It’s not a huge coincidence that it’s also the last one by Slaviscek, but in any case what came afterward tended towards larger, more eventful stories that actually had the guts to do something big, rather than simply hinting at the possibility of something big like we had with Doors. As with his previous adventures, there are some excellent ideas scattered amidst the dross, but implementing them well would take more effort than it’s probably worth.

 1. At least, I hope so—don’t prove me wrong, third edition!

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