Dead Gods

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 44: Dead Gods




In 2004, Dungeon Magazine, now under different management but still heavily involved with the D&D license and largely made up from ex-TSR employees, published a list of “The 30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time.” A panel of distinguished game designers, including more than a handful of Planescape alums, were behind the rankings, and despite an obvious love for very old school 1980s releases, one Planescape adventure managed to make the cut: Dead Gods. I’m not here to argue that more should’ve been on there—adventures were never the setting’s strongest suit—but I think the question as of 2022 is whether it’s still something worth playing. For as much as these designers loved their old school releases, for the most part I can’t imagine running original Gygax adventures, and for related reasons a lot of people feel the same way about 1990s modules. These things don’t necessarily age great. That being said, I will save you a bit of time if you’re too antsy to read through this entire lengthy essay and say that Dead Gods is extremely good. It’s messy and difficult to run and is not to everyone’s taste, but its prickly nature is also a lot of its charm. If you’re the type of person Dead Gods was made for, it’s phenomenal. 

It’s still rather nuts to see that this “Deluxe” adventure was released just a month after The Great Modron March, as I can’t imagine anyone was finished running that adventure by the time Dead Gods made its way to store shelves, but late-90s TSR was kind of a mess like that, especially in 1997-1998. It’s also not a huge surprise to learn that Dead Gods was originally intended as a boxed set along the lines of Hellbound, as really that format would’ve fit this material even better, but no matter. What we have is something that follows a similar format to Hellbound, consisting of two (rather than three) thematically linked adventures plus their accompanying maps and illustrations, though here they’re all jammed into one book. It’s not ideal, but on the other hand it’s perfectly suitable and an understandable choice for business reasons. It’s the writing that really matters anyhow, and this is where we see Monte Cook really flex his muscles as an adventure designer in a way that had been hinted at before but hadn’t been fully realized until now. There were other lengthy adventures published by TSR during this period, including the multi-part Monstrous Arcana tie-in adventures as well as full-on boxed sets, but this was one of the few times where that length was matched with quality. 

I decided to only include RK Post’s artwork for this article, because they’re by far the best in the release.

I realize I’m still only introducing the book, and that’s because there is a weirdly large amount of context for it. TGMM revealed that Primus was dead, killed by Orcus, and Dead Gods unveils the whole truth of how Orcus returned to life, or rather undeath, and went around killing a bunch of Powers. While apparently this wasn’t in fact planned from the beginning of the setting, given the hints about the Wand of Orcus dating back to Planes of Chaos, it certainly felt like something that we’d been long waiting for. Most of Planescape’s metaplots never actually did go anywhere, whereas this one is notable for coming to fruition. I don’t love the story’s ending, or the fact that it doesn’t really seem to work with the future of D&D, but oh well. Planescape at least tried to have an interesting continuity, and Wizards of the Coast going and comic book-style retconning things such that no one ever truly dies is both not the designers’ fault and easily ignored.


When most people talk about Dead Gods, they’re usually referring to the first and longer of the adventures, “Out of the Darkness.” One of the strengths of this adventure, though, is that despite that big, hideous (seriously it is so bad…) image of a god of some sort on the book’s cover, it takes quite a while before PCs have much of an idea what it is they’re up to. Hell, I can see a particularly withholding DM keeping this opaque until nearly the very end, which is something I rather love. Instead of drafting heroes into this story with a cliché, the PCs begin by simply chasing some thieving khaastas, i.e. lizardmen, and trying to solve a simple problem for randos. Ultimately, players will probably become embroiled in the bigger plot at hand, but that remains up to them. No one is going to meet them in an inn and give them a big quest, or tell them that the fate of the multiverse rests in their hands. As such, it’s a module that relies a fair bit on having curious and at least somewhat altruistic players. I’m a fan of this, but as with so much else about Dead Gods, it’s definitely not for some parties. When I ran a version of this ages and ages ago (so long I can’t quite figure out when it even was), this was one of the problems, as our group wasn’t really the selfless band of heroes ideally suited for this mission, and as a result I needed to create much more motivation. Which is fine, but worth keeping in mind—some people like playing as heroes, but that isn’t for everyone, especially in a Planescape campaign.1

Orcus chilling after a long day of murdering gods.

The first three chapters of “OOTD” are largely there to introduce players to the problem at hand, which means getting them to a city on Yggdrasil named Crux and throwing them up agains Orcus’s (here sometimes going by the name Tenebrous, but also sometimes not, so I feel like both are fine and Orcus has a lot more weight to most D&D fans) minions, a group of reality-warping undead demons known as visages. Not only can they change people’s perceptions, they can also duplicate the bodies of people they kill, and much of the chaos of these first chapters results from this. Evil has come to Yggdrasil, but it’s the type that can look like anyone. Crux isn’t a terribly interesting location, or rather making it interesting is up to the DM, but that’s fine. Despite its deluxe status, Dead Gods still relies a ton on the DM’s ability to do basic things like portray an interesting fantasy town. Part of the adventure’s difficult nature is that it is at times extremely open, and the writing style at the time meant that things could only be sketchily depicted. 

I suspect many people dislike the module’s beginning, but even before things get epic the story is strong and suitably weird. Players spend time searching for a magical wand that steals beauty, then end up witnessing the death throes of some mind flayers before hitching a ride in a walking tower to a magical grove inhabited by the Norns. They climb the world tree and get into arguments with mischievous squirrels before dealing with body swapping demons. All of these are the types of things I love about Planescape, with the unexpected constantly cropping up when players begin feeling complacent. Investigating weird phenomena is just as interesting as saving the world, sometimes moreso, and this is perhaps the subtlest and cleverest way of kicking off an epic adventure I’ve ever seen.

A xeg-yi from the Negative Energy Plane.

Chapter IV of “OOTD” is where the stakes of the adventure really get established, with PCs spying on a meeting of visages to try and figure out what’s really happening. This leads them to the adventure’s only real dungeon, though fortunately it’s quite a good one. Orcus turns out to have one last fortress hidden away, just in case something like this were to happen to him, but it’s located in perhaps the most inhospitable spot of the multiverse: the Negative Energy Plane. The portal to this is in a ruined temple to Orcus in a ruined Prime Material Plane, and the fortress itself has no gravity (with a few exceptions) and is filled with the undead. It’s here where the plot’s ridiculous backstory really comes into play, involving a pair of drow elves who were drowned to death in the Styx, so as to make it impossible to reveal the location of Orcus’s wand even if resurrected. Is this a bit ridiculous? Yes, but in a good way that’s suitably over-the-top for a story about the life-and-death cycle of gods. 


Depending on how things go, players have two possible leads to follow, though only one of them is necessary. Assuming they find a hidden map, they can head to Pelion (in later editions renamed Mithardir because… confusion is good?), the third and largely forgotten layer of Arborea. It contains the realm of the Egyptian god Nephthys, as well as a lot of were-animals for reasons never really made clear, plus endless amounts of sand coating ancient ruins. Here, the players randomly, and let’s be honest here coincidentally in a way that’s pretty unbelievable, stumble upon a flashback dealing with the exact events that led to Orcus’ newfound power. When I say, “flashback,” I mean flashback, in that players all create new PCs and experience the events of a mini-dungeon untold years in the past. I take a bit of issue with the clumsiness of the literal device that causes this, but the result is still quite special, and at least as of the time of its release pretty unique to Dead Gods. None of this material matters in terms of actually stopping Orcus, but it enriches the storyline and adds a lot of depth and flavor to his quest. Plus, it helps with the adventure’s surprising motif of turning the hints from Planes of Chaos into concrete things for players to explore.

Either before or after this side trip (though I think it works a lot better before due to pacing reasons), the adventurers head to another version of the Prime Material Plane in order to find that other drow elf involved in hiding the Wand of Orcus. I’m a big fan of for once having a Planescape adventure take a lengthy jaunt to the Prime, and what’s more this section is in fact a huge bit of fan service towards old D&D players. Shannon Appelcline describes this as, “Rather surprisingly, the Vault of the Drow from D3: Vault of the Drow (1978) makes a return in chapter VI of ‘Out of the Darkness.’ There’s a nice history of the events of the GDQ series (1978-1980) that even clarifies some things, followed by a run-down of what’s happened since.” Considering that there are mentions of Orcus’ return resulting from the actions of Acerak (the lich from Tomb of Horrors), plus the return of Orcus and his famous artifacts, means that this adventure is filled with D&D lore. It’s a shame that the company stopped caring about this sort of thing so soon afterwards, as what’s built here really feels ripe for more exploration. 

Even for players with little-to-no familiarity with the Vault of the Drow (i.e., me), it’s a nice change of pace. This section is the largest sandbox in the adventure, and in fact perhaps the largest in all of Planescape. The players arrive at the Vault, and they know what they’re trying to do, but how they go about achieving this is left entirely up to them. The unfortunate result of this openness is that Cook didn’t even provide basic encounters, just write-ups of the Vault itself and a few of its inhabitants. This is the section that’s going to require the most effort from DMs, but what I appreciate at this point is the level of variety. “As with most adventures of the ’90s, ‘Out of the Darkness’ is built around event-driven play, where players must react to a variety of set events, chapter after chapter,” says Appelcline. This is true, and honestly is not a bad thing despite what the internet may try to convince you of. Nevertheless, “With that said, there’s a lot of variety within the adventure, including sandboxes in Crux (chapter II) and the Vault of the Drow (chapter VI), a murder investigation (chapter III), and a fortress crawl (chapter V). This offers players a lot more agency than most of the event-driven adventures of the time period.” You could easily take a session, or a dozen, in the Vault, and it’s very much up to the taste of the players at hand.

A sexy drow elf wearing 100% sensible armor.

Finally, players know where the Wand of Orcus is and, perhaps (though probably not…), what to do with it. It’s located in the depths of the fourth layer of Pandemonium, which would probably feel a lot more special if we hadn’t just read about another such vault in Doors to the Unknown two adventures ago. Oh well. In order to get there, players most likely deal with a traveling circus that goes by the name The Cynosure and then get sucked between layers as a liquid with the help of weird beings called the Ingress. Once there, they race an ogre priest of Orcus to get to the Wand and either destroy or at least lose it for a while, and then if they’re not too stupid they figure out a way out of this completely locked up cavern.


The final chapter of “Out of the Darkness” is in some ways its weirdest and least necessary. Regardless of what players did with the wand, somehow that priest knabs it or what remains of it and goes out to the Astral Plane to resurrect his deity. There’s some thrilling fights here, and then, umm, Orcus just disappears. It’s strange. The final chapter has some wonderful material, but also doesn’t fit in quite as well as it should with the rest, feeling tacked on in order to have a cool fight out on the body of a Power. With Orcus’s corpse and his priest gone, Cook only tells us that “The PCs are left with yet another mystery,” which sounds cool I suppose, but isn’t a great way to actually end an adventure. Canonically, Orcus is back I guess, which makes the adventure also more than a bit weird as it seems like success and failure have the same result, thereby making it all moot. I don’t know, perhaps more was planned for Orcus that never came to pass? 

Orcus chatting up Kiaransalee? Maybe?

“Into the Light” can easily be run in the middle of “Out of the Darkness,” and in fact its relative lack of interest in battle makes for a nice counterpoint. The entire adventure takes place in Sigil, and concerns a temple where, it turns out, the remains of a dead god were used in the foundation of a church. One individual is using this to his advantage in order to cause friction between two factions he hates, the Athar and the Sign of One, but that’s rather less interesting than the investigation around the god himself. The first two chapters here concern the players figuring out what’s going on with this temple, while the third railroads them into another bit of flashbacking in which they experience the deceased god’s memories in order to put him to rest.  None of this is spectacular, but it essentially gives us a contrapuntal version of a God’s lifecycle. Orcus’s rage and vengeance play well against Badir’s understanding and acceptance, which is why they do fit quite well together. I don’t think there’s quite enough here for a full adventure, but fitting this around other nonsense happening in Sigil is a good way to have players explore more of the city and its complicated faction dynamics. 


As for the production side of things, it’s unfortunate to have another big Planescape release without even a bit of art from Tony DiTerlizzi. However, RK Post’s work here, aside from the truly hideous cover, is quite excellent and fits perfectly well with the adventure. Unfortunately, his contribution ends abruptly mid-book, and chapter seven until the end is largely  drawn by Josh Timbrook, who, uhh… is not so great. There are a couple of additional Post illustrations in “Out of the Light,” which only highlight the disparity between the artists. The book also ends with full-color illustrations of particular scenes by Adam Rex, similar to what was done with Hellbound. Unfortunately, not only are most of these disappointingly bad, the format of including them like this with multiple images per page makes showing a hard copy to players a huge pain in the ass. 

Rob Lazzaretti delivers the goods yet again.

The brightest spot in the art is the maps by Dennis Kauth and Rob Lazzaretti. It’s impossible to be certain of how their collaboration worked exactly, but with the exception of just a few (including, sadly, the inner-cover drawing of  Yggdrasil) the maps are excellent. Four of them are included in a full-color, rip-out feature that sadly I no longer seem to possess. I suspect my copy is in a friend’s storage shed, never to be returned, and unfortunately this is even rarer to spot on its own than the In the Cage map I purchased off of eBay a few months back when one randomly cropped up. I’m going to hope for more luck on this account, but I’m not holding my breath about actually finding a copy anytime in the next year or so.

The resulting package is, as I noted, not for everyone. Dead Gods takes a lot of work to run well, and the changing of playstyles means that there is likely at least one chapter that isn’t a home run with any group. That being said, it’s big and exciting, and feels utterly Planescape. Every chapter is filled with ideas, and Cook brings in concepts from many previous books in the setting and fits them all together. It’s not a ready-to-run situation, but is certainly a more than worthy successor to TGMM and well worth the read, even if it’s not something you’d necessarily be able get to the table. 

  1.  I know I said before that TGMM was the last Planescape adventure I’d run, but, well, I was super wrong. I had plenty of notes in my copy of Dead Gods, conversions to what looked like early third edition D&D. As I read through “Out of the Darkness” I soon realized how much of this I’d used, though with pretty heavy alterations. I vaguely recall a plane-hoping ending that involved a mind flayer with 30 ft.-long tentacles at some point? In any case, my high school self seemed to use the module more as inspiration than as a real template for adventures. I would absolutely love to run it more properly now that I’m both a far better DM/storyteller, and the people I play with put much more emphasis on roleplaying.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to get the latest Exposition Break articles sent to your inbox.