Tales from the Infinite Staircase

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 51: Tales from the Infinite Staircase




If I correctly remember an interview from years ago with Dan Harmon, the famous (infamous?) creator of Community and co-creator of Rick and Morty, this is how he described the difference between his work on these two shows. Community was clearly the more personal of these series, whereas Rick and Morty was essentially him “shredding,” just showing off what he could do and having a blast doing so. That’s the feeling I have when reading Monte Cook’s Tales from the Infinite Staircase, a book that throws out interesting ideas by the dozen and figures that you can make of them what you will. As such, it’s a great read, though more than a bit daunting to use as an actual adventure, which I suppose makes it a fitting addition to Planescape.

The titular staircase first appeared in Planes of Chaos, which notes that it begins at Selune’s (a Forgotten Realms deity) hall of silver when the moon is full and leads to “all the cities that exist, anywhere in the planes, to to all the cities that ever were or will be.” Cook takes this idea and runs with it, explaining that it’s not the existence of cities that causes the Staircase to appear, rather it’s the existence of creativity. This always arrives with the appearance of cities, but a single creative individual might also cause a landing. Little other information is included in the original entry, though there is a wonderful entry and drawing of the Lillendi in the book’s “Monstrous Supplement.” Still, like a lot of Planescape ideas, it largely seemed like a neat sketch of a concept that would be soon forgotten. The possibilities for its use in a campaign seemed obvious, but while the many intervening Planescape supplements spent time detailing all sorts of other planar pathways, it remained little more than footnote until its sudden reappearance here and in For Duty & Deity

Half of the table of contents image, which is also the best art in the book.

Only the first adventure of Tales actually takes place on the Staircase itself (otherwise it’s there as a path) and that is perhaps also the weakest one in the book, though at the same time it’s also the most detailed. This is the inaugural “Planewalkers,” which serves to get players out to this location and introduce them to its guardian Lillendi. From here, PCs are given their primary mission, which is to stop the Iron Shadow from sucking creativity away from the multiverse. Or… maybe they’re not going to do that, because that quest is actually kind of half-baked. Maybe they just use the Staircase to go off and do their own adventures unrelated to this, though perhaps still drawn from the book. Who knows? Tales is particularly odd in that it barely cares.


This is where one peculiarity of the book really comes into play, which is that despite its overarching plot this is (yet another…) adventure anthology, though it can also be used as one longer adventure. But unlike any other instance of this I can think of, as noted by Kevin Kulp, it’s “that rarest of beasts: a non-linear, linked anthology of adventures whose chapters can be played in almost any order.” This format only barely works, holding together so tenuously that it kinda doesn’t, but oh well. Again, it’s a fun read, and the ideas are sparking here at an incredible rate. So let’s get to those. 

Not quite as Escher-like as it should be, but this map is still an excellent representation of an extremely complicated concept.

Cook seemed to have a particular interest in pulling out neglected parts of the multiverse and shoving them into his stories. This is one of the aspects I love about his Planescape work, as so many other authors would rather stick to the Abyss and Hell and make everything about demons. Ok sure, Hellbound did that, too, but even there the focus was really on the yugoloths. Once Staircase‘s players are given their quest of exploration throughout the multiverse, none of their choices are what I would call obvious, and this is a lot of the adventure’s fun, as well as yet another reason why it’s intimidating for even a well-versed Plansecape DM to run. 

“Lost Sovereignty” takes the PCs to a drowned formian city on Arcadia. As a race, they’d barely been seen before now, and even in Planes of Law they seemed a bit like an afterthought. Here, though, they’re given the spotlight, and players find themselves dealing with the loss of general willpower from these ant-like beings resulting in a disastrous flood. What’s worse, by the time the players arrive here there may well also be an invasion from slaadi. 

Hannibal King’s lillend is more of a half-worm than a half-snake.

Tale 3, “Lord of the Worms,” is the strangest of the whole book, and reminds me a bit more of sci-fi concepts than typical fantasy. Players land in a spherical demi-plane (they’re on the inside though, not like us on Earth) named Maelost, which is being fought over by a few different and incredibly-alien beings. This includes one who inhabits all of the water in this world, another who inhabits its caves, and then a hive-mind race of more typical humanoids existing and warring between them. These beings gain their hive-mind through a symbiotic relationship with yet more alien creatures, but for the most part this entire plane consists of only three minds. Up until now, Planescape had really avoided spending any time in demi-planes, despite how vast their possibilities are, and here we see how much of a missed opportunity this really is. This adventure is certainly not to everyone’s taste, but it pulls the multiverse wide open in new ways. It’s in fact barely an adventure at all, more of a somewhat sketchy and not-quite-complete sandbox, and still the most exciting part of the whole book.

“In Disarray” takes us to Limbo, which fans of Planescape and Cook will have seen before in The Great Modron March, but not at all like this. The slaadi are facing the possibility of extinction due to their creative lethargy, and players choose to help this out… because why not, I guess. Frankly, letting the slaadi die off would probably be of interest to more than a few players, though sadly this option is elided completely. It’s not until this chapter that the real adventure of Tales starts moving, and as such it’s also the only adventure that’s mandatory for players if they want to remove the whole Iron Shadow nonsense. They learn about a distilled form of chaos—called Navimas, though I recommend renaming it because that’s a pretty weak way to refer to the fundamental essence of chaos—that’s a necessary ingredient for returning things to normal. That’s right, it’s an actual storyline!

One of the very few Planescape dragons appears in Tales.

More importantly, this adventure gives us key information about the slaadi race as a whole. One of their weirdnesses has always been that there are just a few types of slaadi when they’re supposed to be all about chaos. That’s exactly the type of problem you get from a weird shared universe, with concepts cropping up and becoming canon long before they should’ve. But in the last page of this adventure, it’s revealed that this is caused by the Slaad Lords’ fear of other slaadi becoming as powerful as they are. True slaadi are as chaotic as you would hope, and aren’t restricted to the usual caste system. What’s more, this brings some of the lords from “Lords of Chaos” into the spotlight, rather than leaving them to just an obscure Dragon article. 


“Winds of Change” takes players to a city on the Elemental Plane of Air, where they spend time tracking down a person who might have knowledge about how to dispel the Iron Shadow, as well as solving a very linear, not terribly developed murder mystery. It’s hard not to contrast what’s here with Planescape’s previous investigation in Harbinger House, and, well, the comparison doesn’t work in Staircase‘s favor. However, I do like the city of Blurophil and giving us a more developed look at life on this plane. The inclusion of the inner planes and demi-planes, plus different parts of the prime material, make Cook’s adventures really feel epic. Staircase isn’t just concerned about a happening in Arcadia, it’s about a full multiversal problem. 

King’s depiction of slaads leaves a lot to be desired…

My least favorite adventure in the book is “The Dream Well.” It starts out fine, with players arriving in a recently demolished githyanki city on the Astral Plane. They were attacked by psurlons, those weird creatures we just met in Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix III, and completely decimated when caught off guard. Much less interesting than this conflict, though, is the Dream Well itself, where players go and have, uhh, dreams that might help them out. Yay, I guess….

In general, I find dreams in RPG’s to be similar to dreams in most artistic forms, which is to say quite boring. They’re good for inspiring ideas, but players usually don’t particularly care for them in my experience, nor do I love running them. Ultimately, D&D is itself a form of a dreamworld, so putting a dream within this just dilutes the whole experience. This scenario is somewhat unique in how its dreams work, but not in a particularly noteworthy way, and the whole concept of the Dream Well seems more than a little bit contrived. 

A scene from Jangling Hiter. Kind of.

Fortunately, the next adventure is a return to form. “Reflections” takes players to a rilmani city near the base of the Spire in the Outlands. Here, we’re introduced to a library that makes copies of every book ever written. What’s more, it wasn’t made by the rilmani, but rather by a neutral race that came before them, the kamerel. This is the kamerel’s only appearance (ever, I believe), which is too bad because I find them a worthwhile addition to the multiverse. They’re a bit like the Kricket race in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in that their discovery of other intelligent races caused within them a xenophobic hatred. Eventually, they left the multiverse itself and went into a mirror pseudo-plane instead, which sadly is also the last we’ll hear of this, though they also left behind this library. 


Players here likely spend their time searching for a book with information about how to use the Navimas from Limbo, and perhaps they also get mixed up in the fight between these two odd races. I also appreciate how this book treats some of the weirdness of the Outlands, with its magic-annulling features causing havoc to not just the plane’s inhabitants, but even to the Iron Shadow, which like any other magical thing can’t exist right next to the spire (fortunately, the rule from the original Manual of the Planes about chemical reactions no longer working seems to have been lost between editions, perhaps because it only leads to sheer nonsense). 

The book’s final adventure is in some ways its most typical, but that’s fine. We’ve had plenty of sandboxes and even an investigation, so why not add in a more traditional dungeon crawl? “A Devil’s Dream” has players head to Jangling Hiter, the kyton city in Hell composed entirely of chains. There, they break into a kyton’s fortress and, uhh, probably kick some butt I guess. They also may learn about the kytons’ nascent discovery of the relationship between nupperibos and the Ancient Baatorians. This continues a fascinating metaplot from Faces of Evil: The Fiends, and also does a lot to expand upon the relationship between the kytons on the other inhabitants of Hell. Like with the slaadi in Limbo, it’s good material about these people that can easily be grafted onto any planar adventure, and developed the mythos of this world in excellent new ways. 

A map so good it makes you want to play this adventure just as an excuse to use it.

And then… the book ends. Abruptly. Which I suppose is only natural, considering that these adventures can be used in any order, but it’s still a bit amazing that it just stops after the last adventure, with nothing to tie everything together. No explanation for the Iron Shadow is ever given, and as a whole it’s an extremely weak adversary/McGuffin. This is my biggest complaint about Tales, which weirdly has a lot in common with a book released a year later, Vortex of Madness, in that it’s more about featuring neat locations than about telling a story. As such, it’s really apposite to contemporary adventure paths and what people look for in RPG’s as of 2022. Despite this, the first two pages of every adventure after the first is spent exploring the ramifications of which order it was visited in and what players did there. As such, there are a lot of words spent on an overall plot that is just not very good. I would use all eight of these locations within my own campaign, but the whole Iron Shadow business would require a ton of expansion to make usable. As a result, Tales is a good Planescape book, but not a good adventure. I love the ideas being played with here, and getting more detailed versions of locations like the staircase and Jangling Hiter, which only received short blurbs prior, is always appreciated, but anyone wishing to use this campaign for themselves is going to be stuck with a lot of retooling. 


Relatedly, Tales uses less planar cant than any other Planescape work, and is obviously intended as an introduction to the setting (yet another one). Likely, this was a final attempt to get the setting some interest before it got the axe. The difficulty with this, though, is that there isn’t nearly enough context about all of these wildly disparate races and creatures that populate the adventures. Hell, many Planescape fans wouldn’t know who the rilmani are, or the psurlons, or plenty of other creatures that pop up in this adventure, let alone people new to the setting. But the book really assumes complete familiarity with all of the people and worlds it mentions, to the point that you’d really have to be reading along with every non-Sigil Planescape supplement in order to really feel confident as a DM. As such, it’s written with the hope of approachability, but is in fact one of the most lore-reliant and complex adventures in the entire setting (only to be outpaced by Faction War).

Presumably this city is built on a god-corpse? This isn’t mentioned in the adventure, but is still rather neat to learn this way.

The cover art for Tales is by rk post and is also one of the few times I liked the cover art for any book in Planescape. It’s so much better than what we’re used to, it really stands out. Sadly, inside the book all of the art is by Hannibal King, whose work, here at least, is unimpressive. It’s not the worst we’ve seen, but it’s never inspired, and particularly in the full-page images is somehow garish in just two color tones. The only piece of interior art I actually like in the entire book is the splash image for the table of contents, and I’m not even positive it’s by King. Conversely, the cartography was by Rob Lazzaretti and Dennis Kauth, who once again hit it out of the park. It’s always both lovely and functional, with the map of TorNav’roc a particular highlight. None of this comes as a surprise, but it’s still a great feature of the setting to consistently feature such wonderful cartography.

It’s weird to say that Tales from the Infinite Staircase isn’t worth running but is worth reading, but I guess that’s my recommendation here. It’s a wonderful source of planar lore that’s just a little too undercooked to be usable all on its own. All eight locations it details are worth reading and tossing into your own campaign, but at the same time you can probably come up with a link between them that’s stronger and better fitting to what your players are interested in. The push-pull between being an anthology and telling one cohesive story really doesn’t work, but at least it’s an interesting experiment, and is something I’m glad managed to make it into the world despite its myriad oddities. 

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