A Walk Through the Planes – Part 5: Tales of the Outer Planes




Because this column began by covering some quite early pieces of roleplaying game writing, I’ve tried not to be too judgmental about the material. Some of it has been rough, some of it has been disappointing, but given the period and the experimental nature of the topic only to be expected. What we’ve been looking for are gems of inspiration, regardless of how much dross they’ve been surrounded by. But that’s going to end here, as with Tales of the Outer Planes we reach the first material that I consider actively bad. If you’re going to avoid one book or article covered in this whole incredibly lengthy series, this is the one to skip, though at the same time it’s also interestingly bad,, a sort of flip side of Planescape that shows how easy it is to get what’s basically the same concept so very, very wrong. 

Tales of the Outer Planes was published in 1988 to support the previous year’s Manual of the Planes. It was also the only book published to support that volume, and even Dragon Magazine only had minimal support in the form of three short articles by Jeff Grubb, which came out sporadically and without much purpose. It’s hard to say whether this was because the Manual didn’t sell well, or because Advanced Dungeons & Dragons‘ second edition came out so soon afterward, or if the company’s interest simply shifted to Grubb’s other world-spanning adventure line, Spelljammer. Whatever the case, I would like to add one additional possibility, which is that Tales was so bad that it killed off the idea of plane-hopping adventures for many years to come. 


Ok, I admit, the book isn’t a complete and utter catastrophe top to bottom, though the good parts feel as accidental as anything else they randomly included. Like a few other supplements at the time, Tales was an anthology of short adventures, a format that was briefly in vogue even though for the most part I don’t think it’s a terribly good format for RPG modules. It consists of 11 adventures set across the planes (most of which, oddly, are not on the outer planes at all, despite the title’s claim), as well as 17 “lairs” for planar monsters, which is another short-lived format that happily has been long lost to time, though I’ll detail a bit more about this down below. The adventures are in order of intended character level they’re designed for, and can theoretically be strung together through an overarching planar hub invented just for this, the World Serpent Inn, which is one of those ideas that sounds kind of cool in theory, but in actuality doesn’t really work unless you want your campaign to function in a rather lame, fairytale universe. Although it would later be redeemed, I hate the version in this book with a passion. 

The Inn is an unbelievable place. Not only are its inhabitants from other planes, but some are actually Powers in disguise, relaxing safely in the protection of the Inn’s powerful magic.

Now why the hell would Powers want to do that? After reading through this volume, it’s hard not to suspect that Sigil’s prohibition on Powers comes from just how dumb this premise is, combined perhaps with how lame the adventures on display that involved them in this volume really are. If you can just walk across the bar and get into a fistfight with Thor, then suddenly your campaign world is pretty stupid, and all sense of magnificence or luminousness is gone. If the World Tavern Inn is used as intended, Powers are less awe-inspiring or prestigious than your average town mayor, who at least has better things to do with their time than stay at the local bar all day. That every adventure in this book begins here ought to tell you more than a bit about the quality of what’s to come. 

The entire book only has half a dozen or so non-map images in it, and what’s included is about as inspiring as you’d expect. Nothing says epic, interplanar adventures like an old man with a cane.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the stories that do involve Powers that are by far the worst in the book, starting with the very first adventure. Despite being intended for first and second-level characters (in the Forgotten Realms, no less, which has its own pantheon of deities who barely make appearances in this book), “A Simple Deed, Well Rewarded” visits Hecate, Raven, Enki, Tlazolteotl, Xochipilli, and Lliira. Multiple faiths are thrown into a blender with no particular care, and it’s only first level characters who can solve their basic-ass problems. 

Here, the Powers, deities beyond all mortal ken, are just that dude in a bar who sends you out on a quest. Why they can’t do any of these small tasks themselves is never really explained, nor why they wouldn’t have their millions of followers across the multiverse do it instead of drunken randos at a bar. This question of why these individuals would be involved suffuses every quest in this volume, and never gets close to adequately answered. This, I think, is part of why so much of this volume operates on fairytale logic that I find difficult to take, and would simply not work well at the tables I sit at. Stories like this fall apart at the merest nudge of skepticism, and as a result I find them rather embarrassing. 

And all of that is without even getting into the actual prose of the adventure which is, let’s just say… extremely poor. If there was editorial guidance at any point in the creation of this volume, it must’ve been a quick spell-check, as the style is a mess and all over the place, and each adventure is formatted differently. You get the sense that the assignments were given out by mail, and from there simply pasted into the book without so much as a sentence of feedback. Do I hate this first adventure? Yes, so much so that it made it difficult for me to keep going with reading this volume, which doesn’t even clock in at 100 pages, because I dreaded what would come afterward. 


The fact of the matter is that the first two and last two adventures are the worst here (which tends to shade anyone’s critical reaction given how it’s beginnings and endings we remember best), but there are some more interesting modules in the middle. Most noteworthy of all, one of the book’s many authors even contributed years later to Planescape itself, so the effect on that setting can definitely be felt here, even if it’s for the most part a reaction against this miserable set of poorly-thought-out adventures. 

This map is actually pretty sweet.

With the third adventure, “The Brewing Storm,” the party heads out to the Elemental Plane of Air to rescue a jann noble before he’s eaten by some grues (was it pitch black? Sources are still unclear). While the motivation for this is as flimsy as ever, Thomas M. Kane does a good job of making this place into an environment that feels somewhat real. The Plane here has little regard for the characters, and an openness that’s lacking in many of the adventures. Here, there’s a map and some possible leads to follow, plus a time limit, but beyond that it’s up to the party to figure out how to solve this strange problem. It took almost 20 pages to get there, but finally the volume offers something that feels relevant to what the planes would one day become.

I’m not quite as enamored of “The Voyage of Nereid,” “Through the Fire,” The Missing Kristal,” and “Into the Astral,” (by future Planescape writer Bill Slavicsek), but they’re all just mediocre and not actively bad. “Through the Fire” is probably the best of them, and seems possible to run without any violence at all, which seems nicely Planescape-y, and all of these at least work. I don’t think they’re terribly interesting adventures, and not something I read and wanted to bring to the table, but they do the modicum of work expected of them by showcasing some of the planes (note: NONE of these feature the Outer Planes) and what makes them unique. It’s fine. They’re fine.


There is, however, one real gem in the book, which is John A. Nephew’s “An Element of Chaos,” which takes the players to the Seven Heavens (I almost added “of Celestia,” but at this point that wasn’t yet the case). Due to some background that the players probably never learn about, a slaad lord, i.e. a creature of pure chaos, lands in heaven and begins wreaking havoc on the nearby area. The citadel he lands in, as a meteor because of reasons, is still filled with heavenly creatures, but they start going out of control. This isn’t just about giving the PCs a reason to fight off angels, though, it’s more a matter of screwing around with the ideas of this plane. My favorite part involves a librarian who decides that heaven’s idea of what books should be kept around is lacking in balance and decides to produce some new works, such as “Good vs. Evil: A Dialectical Analysis,” “Do Gentlecreatures Prefer Succubi?,” and  “A Brief Criticism of Celestial Hierarchies.” Philosophy suffuses the entire area, and there’s a way this adventure plays with the concept of alignments that feels wonderfully impious. Life is short, so the chances of me actually running this module seem slim to none, but the fact is it’s the only one in the book that I’d consider. Anyone interested in Planescape who happens to have this book should give this one a read, as it feels like the impetus for some of the setting’s ideas we’ll be getting to not too far in the future.

This image makes little sense with the actual adventure, but I appreciate that TSR commissioned someone to draw a short, round man staring down a large frog.

Unfortunately, things only go downhill from here, and fast. “A Friendly Wager” is another bit of hanging out with the gods, this time all of them Grecian so at least there’s some logic, but still, come on. As with before, this places the PCs at the center of the universe for no particular reason, and as much as the deities do kind of act how their pantheon tends to in their myths, it’s still pretty lame.

The book’s last two modules include a trip to the Abyss, in”The Sea of Screams,” and then to Hell in “To Hell and Back.” The first of these is the type of bad module that cropped up a lot more in the late 80s and early 90s, where the PCs escort someone on their adventure and are largely there just to act as witnesses. That’s right, it’s an escort mission, and while I actually find parts of this interesting (they go to a bunch of parts of the Abyss, showing off some of its danger—cool, I guess), there are some big issues nonetheless. Chief among them is why the goddess Kali is part of the Forgotten Realms world, why the person they’re escorting is so dumb, and that the PCs can disrupt a goddess’s thousand year plot for universal domination by yelling her name a bunch. And “To Hell and Back” is even worse, with Baalzebul forcing the PCs into service at ye olde World Serpent Inn of idiocy. Turns out, your whole adventure was worthless too, as deus ex machina devas who overheard you at the bar earlier come by to save the day, after which the god Tyr literally buys the party a round back at the bar. Seriously. 

Even the magisterial Olympus is just a rather dull mountain range.

Somehow that’s not all, the book also includes 17 lair write-ups, which are encounters with the creature named in their title and a couple prompts for how people might end up in these environs. My eyes truly glazed over in this section, and while some of these might have points of interest, at this point in reading I just couldn’t force myself to care. Did anyone ever like these sorts of things? Given that they died off, probably not, but if you’re looking for a glimpse at what gamers used in the past, I guess there’s that, plus an explanation of how to use the Battlesystem rules to fight against armies of efreet. Keeping in mind that to me the least interesting part of roleplaying games are their fights, and that these encounters are only fights, you can see why this part is a complete miss for me.


Ultimately, I tend to find short adventures less useful and not really worth the effort to run. The market seems to largely agree with me, considering that both Pathfinder and fifth edition D&D have shifted largely to a campaign-based focus, and if there’s an argument for why this format has been abandoned, here it is. That being said, there was more focus in the early days of the hobby on people using these as starting points for their own adventures, and I don’t think that this is inherently a bad format, it’s just that good short stories tend to be a better fit for other rpg systems. D&D, with its focus on long-term character building, fits better with epics, and this is especially true when it’s coupled with a setting like the infinity of the planes.

If anything, this book makes the accomplishments of Planescape just a few years later even more impressive. While that setting’s success may feel, as successes tend to, like a no-brainer, it’s obviously much harder to make this world compelling than it seems at first glance. Fortunately, we won’t see the godforsaken World Serpent Inn again until 2001, and at least by then Jeff Grubb will take the helm once more and do his best to make it at least slightly less insipid. 

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