For Duty & Deity

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 50: For Duty & Deity




As part of late-era TSR’s “we have no idea what what the hell is working so let’s try everything” approach to design and releases, May 1998 saw the simultaneous publication of both For Duty & Deity and Tales from the Infinite Staircase. This pair of adventures is tenuously linked by that titular staircase, and it’s possible to mesh them together in a slightly ugly way if you’re interested in both of them. I don’t suggest this at all (you’ll see why below), but you do you. Anyhow, while Tales is fondly remembered today, Duty has largely been forgotten, and this is probably for the best. None of which is to say that it doesn’t expand the scope of the multiverse in interesting ways, just that it does so without actually being a good adventure. Planescape fans should be fairly used to this conundrum by now.

For Duty & Deity‘s author Dale Donovan worked previously in Planescape on Planes of Conflict, where he was unfortunately given the near-impossible task of attempting to make three upper planes interesting. That he couldn’t do so with Bytopia shouldn’t be held against him, and apparently his planar interests remained even afterward. Likewise, the editor of this release was Michele Carter, who alongside Ray Vallese was the primary editor for the Planescape line (I hope to interview her, too, at some point…). So the actual planar content here, if that’s why you’re checking this release out, is unsurprisingly excellent. It’s just that there isn’t much of an adventure to go along with it, and what’s there feels like only the skeleton of a module. Running parts of Dead Gods required a lot of work from the DM, but running Duty is going to require the wholesale creation of everything except for the main storyline. 

The Infinite Staircase sure looks less cool here than it will in our next entry.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, let’s at least summarize what’s here. Duty is a Forgotten Realms adventure, and ties heavily into that setting’s overarching history. Years ago (maybe 10 or so), this world had a period called the Time of Troubles, in which its overgod kicked all of the lesser gods down in status, de-deifying them if you will (please forgive me for this unbearable joke), until he was appeased. There are a lot of stories surrounding this, with the ascent and descent of many gods along the way, and multiple deific deaths. For the most part, the whole thing was widely accepted as a way of updating this world to match with the changes between AD&D‘s first and second editions, but unlike this sort of change that would occur later on with the game’s fourth edition, this all seemed to pass without much controversy, likely because it was a cool event, Forgotten Realms wasn’t so engrained at that point such that not many people had strong feelings either way, and ultimately the changes weren’t all that big. 


One of the demoted gods during this period neither died nor reappeared at its end, instead her church slowly petered away with her absence while her portfolio was left in the hands of a friend. This goddess, Waukeen, largely went ignored during the intervening years, until Duty sought to explain her absence and return her to the Realms. It turns out that she’d tried sneaking back to her home in the Outlands through a deal with the demon lord Graz’zt. But, well, he’s a demon lord and all, so of course he betrayed her and kept her captive in his realm of the Abyss, which she could do nothing to stop because she was no longer divine. The players, due to several possible motivations, seek to rescue her from the Abyss and reinstate her in both the pantheon and her home in the Outlands. 

Really wish we’d gotten a Tony DiTerlizzi version of the Lillend instead. Her face here is… something.

This is quite a good setup for an adventure (and reinstating a somewhat forgotten god is something I’d feel free to steal for your own), the problem being one of length and depth. Donovan notes, “This adventure is meant to be epic in scale, much more so than its relatively slim size would indicate.” You could easily make this storyline into the entirety of a 20-level campaign, or at least something as big as its counterpart on the Infinite/Celestial Stairway1. Unfortunately, Duty is just 64 pages long, and assuming that TSR still went by its pre-acquisition standard that also meant Donovan had just two months to write this theoretically epic adventure. The resulting work is still worth reading, but not for the adventure itself, which is paltry and weirdly forgettable, whereas some of the booklet’s reference material is both useful and interesting. 


Following a few pages of introduction, the adventure is divided into six parts and a weirdly useless appendix of monster entries at its end (all three of its entries have had better coverage in Planescape). Of these parts, 24 pages are devoted to the whole business of the adventure itself, while the other 24 are essentially one long, in-depth write-up of running adventures in the Abyss and more importantly Azzagrat, the triple-layered realm of Graz’zt. The result is that the adventure doesn’t so much have a storyline as it does a beginning, an end, and a huge sandbox of a middle. 

Graz’zt looks like a World of Warcraft-style little-guy-in-big-armor sort of dude here.

The beginning of Duty offers three equally meh possible starting points for adventurers. None are terribly exciting or surprising, and all basically serve to explain the backstory of this obscure goddess’s absence. Any DM can pretty much fill in the blanks of this rigmarole themselves and tape it onto an ongoing adventure without much effort. The second chapter, which takes players on the Infinite Staircase in order to slip into the Abyss unnoticed, is better, but also pretty much unnecessary for anyone who has a copy of Tales from the Infinite Staircase. It’s probably a neat place for more traditional high fantasy fans to wander into, but overall the whole location and its mechanics are much better covered there, to the point that the adventure could basically just say “players take the Infinite Staircase” and do without the rest. Ok, I’m being facetious and overly critical here, but this material is far from revelatory, and the actual use of the Staircase here is clumsy. The explanation that Graz’zt is just unaware of it while all of the portals to his realm are guarded is unconvincing, and while I don’t think any of this plot-wrangling is terrible, the whole crossover between these two adventures doesn’t really work. And did I mention that this adventure is for a group of 6-8 (whoa, that big of a group sounds miserable) characters of levels 10-12, while Tales is for characters of levels 3-5? Meshing them together gets ridiculous really, really fast.

The chapter focused on specifics of the Abyss is also unnecessary for any Planescape player or reader of this series, but that doesn’t mean this adventure is all filler. Pages 29-48 essentially consists of a long, detailed explanation of this abyssal realm. Azzagrat was previously covered in Planes of Chaos, but there it was given just a couple of pages. Here, we instead receive write-ups of two entire cities, Samora and Zelatar, plus Zrintor the viper forest, and more detailed information about how all of these locations fit together. There are even three possibly-good-though-we’ll-never-know-for-sure maps of these locations. Essentially, while players need a motivation to get to Azzagrat, and a purpose once they arrive, the main reason for this entire adventure is just to let players screw around in this strange realm. Everything in this one lengthy chapter of the book is well worth reading, and would stand as only the second in-depth exploration of an abyssal realm in D&D for many years to come. 

Of William O’Connor’s drawings, the viper tree is the only one I’m really happy with and would actually show players.

All of this openness is going to require both a ton of work from a DM, as well as a pretty motivated and intelligent party. This isn’t an adventure I suggest running, and it’s very easy for characters to make a couple wrong choices and either run out of time for their quest or simply make the wrong decision. But similarly to the fact that the best part of Throne of Bloodstone was the information we received about The Abyss and Orcus’ realm in it, Thanatos (an adventure in which Azzagrat actually appeared as well, in what Shannon Appelcline calls the adventure’s “magic mystery tour of demon lords”), the real meat here is making Azzagrat into a visitable location for PCs. I think the weirdest part of my reaction to this release is that while I would never run Duty itself, I can definitely see myself pulling it out to use as a resource for my own adventure visiting this interesting world. Donovan’s version of Azzagrat is dark and evil, but also fun and surprisingly usable so long as you don’t have adventurers who want to punch everyone they see who happens to have a few extra horns and hooves. 


The interior artwork here by William O’Connor isn’t something I love, but it’s fine enough for the Forgotten Realms and gives the release a different patina from most of what we’ve covered. The drawings try to be medieval-ish, and while it’s not to my taste, and not really up to the scope of depicting planar weirdness, it’s fine enough for what it is. The cover is likewise kind of hilariously middling, but given my antipathy towards the release as a whole I just find this amusing.

I have no idea what the hell is going on in Zelatar, and neither do you. I can’t help but wonder if decent color copies of Sam Wood’s originals still exist somewhere.

Much more disappointing are the maps by Sam Wood, though this is no fault of his. Allow me to explain. Wood’s cartography here consists of maps of Azzagrat, Samora, Zrintor, and Zelatar, plus one depicting the weirdly spartan non-dungeon below Samora (at some point this was probably planned as a more traditional dungeon, but it’s like Donovan wasn’t given the time for this). All of these appear to be lovely, detailed works that would even make Rob Lazzeratti proud. Unfortunately, though, they all seem to have been drawn in color, while the actual release of Duty was in black and white. The result of this mismatch is that they’re printed in a blurry, messy swathe of inky blackness that’s difficult to read and absolutely miserable to look at. When staring at them you can just make out that there are worthwhile details you’re missing out on, perhaps ones worthy of poster-sized releases like we’ve seen so many times before. Instead, what we’re actually given is nigh-unusable and hideously unprofessional. As a whole, this isn’t the ugliest release we’ve seen in this series, but those map pages are far and away the biggest graphical disappointment we’ve come across, or probably ever will. 


For Duty & Deity ends up as yet another of these second edition adventures I’m not going to tell you to seek out. Sure, the information about Azzagrat is cool, but that’s just not enough of the overall release, at least not without readable maps, to make it worth seeking out. Azzagrat would be revisited again, too, many years later, and while the details here are interesting to read about, ultimately all of their ideas crib quite closely to what Lester Smith and Wolfgang Bauer’s version of this realm in Planes of Chaos. The expansion on this material is appreciated, but is by no means necessary, and isn’t so deep it couldn’t be done on your own. It all adds up to a strange footnote to Tales from the Infinite Staircase, in that that release has a companion, one with a suitably planar goal and interesting premise, but is nonetheless weirdly lacking. 

1. This release retconned these two things into one. Which I guess is fine, especially since neither one would ever really be heard from again after this pair of releases.

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