Faction War

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 55: Faction War




At the time of its release, Monte Cook and Ray Vallese’s Faction War was the most controversial work Planescape had ever published. This would not change, and over the years it grew somewhat infamous for just how much it upended the structure of Sigil, the setting’s most important location. The general criticism that’s surrounded the release for the past two decades+ has been unfair for a couple of reasons. For one thing, although it feels a lot like Faction War was intended as the end for the setting, this wasn’t the case at all. As noted in our interview with Cook, Vallese, and Colin McComb, more was planned for the setting. “We wrote Faction War with the intention to break things, explore the ramifications in a few other products for a while, then rebuild. But we never got the chance,” said Vallese. However, the adventure is still a pretty wonderful way for the setting to end, not just because of how much it wrecks this wonderful playground we’ve been reading about for the past few years, but that it does so in such a simultaneously fun and logical way. 

Reading/rereading through all of the Planescape books in such close succession, and with an understanding of where it’s all headed, has made it clear that something along the lines of Faction War had always been intended. The 15 groups of philosophers with clubs coexisting within Sigil were designed to be combustible, and that was much of what made the city fun. This mismatched governmental system is far more interesting and entertaining than that of any other fantasy city I know of, and its contradictions are also its charm. However, the very existence of so many resources spent on Sigil meant that fan resistance to change was almost equally inevitable, even with every one of these books making a point of illustrating how this city was in fact amorphous and ever changing. And to be frank, running a post-Faction War campaign is a lot more work for a DM, which I suspect is the other reason fans hated this module. But having an adventure that mostly serves to blow things up is a good thing, and I’m a big fan of building endings into D&D. Soap operas that go on forever are a lot less interesting than, say, The Sopranos. Conclusions give meaning to what comes before them, and while I wouldn’t recommend starting any Planescape campaign post-Faction War (it’s a situation players should have to arrive at in order to see how different things are), it is a hell of a way for things to go, and ends the setting on a bang rather than a whimper. 


Unlike the mega-adventures that came before it, Faction War is a weird book in how much of it isn’t actually devoted to the adventure itself, and my only complaints about the product are related to this. The first 32 pages of the book are devoted to recapping Sigil in a section titled “Peering into the Cage.” This includes brief rundowns of the city’s wards, as well as all 15 of its factions. But even for setting experts who’ve stuck with Planescape from the beginning, i.e. me, it can’t actually be skipped, because sprinkled into these sections are plenty of new, quite good tidbits on the city. If you jump past this prelude, you’ll miss learning about the Garianis family, essentially a mafia-type group trying to run the Lower Ward, and never find out about Little Arcadia, the location where Celestials tend to hang out (plus a nice side-jab at our least favorite haunt, The Ubiquitous Wayfarer, “[The celestials] that every tout tells a body are in taverns drinking with fiends aren’t as easy to come upon as the touts claim, in reality”). There’s a semi-faction we’re introduced to, the anti-Anarchist Daughters of Light, and most important of all are some new details on Undersigil, an undeveloped part of the city that plays a small role in Faction War. Much of these new details feels like the authors simply had a bunch of cool new ideas from their campaigns or elsewhere and wanted to include it before the setting was completely decimated. The addition is awkward, but largely worth reading because the cool new ideas are legitimately cool. As usual, I end up wishing that there was a single resource that put everything about Sigil in one place, but since that would never happen, let’s just enjoy what we have.

The maps are the best art in the book, so I’m putting one first. They also perfectly match with previous entries in books such as The Factol’s Manifesto, so there’s no weirdness on that regard.

Following this is ten pages of backstory on the actual plot of the adventure itself. In short, Rowan Darkwood, the head of the Fated (i.e. Ayn Rand disciples) who we’ve been told since the original Campaign Setting was one of the two most important people in the city, wants to stage a coup against the Lady of Pain herself. Unfortunately, this backfires, and not only pisses her off enough such that she mazes the head of every faction, she also sends him far back in time to screw with him even more. Didn’t know she could do that, but you know what, why not? Due to his machinations, the factions are even more pissed off with each other than normal, and once every factol disappears all of the saner folks are no longer in charge, such that an all-out war between these groups finally begins. 

What do the players have to do with all of these events? In truth, not a whole ton, but that’s fine. One of the other complaints about this adventure is its railroad-y nature, but unlike in some cases this is a feature, not a bug. The events at hand are too big for the players to really take control of, or often even make sense of. This is an adventure about being in a city in the midst of civil war, and the idea that the PCs should be the protagonists of this whole affair is ludicrous. This is one of the main reasons why I like railroad adventures, because they don’t presume that the entire world centers around the PCS, which in Planescape it certainly should not. Rather than the fate of the multiverse resting on the players, as is the cliched subtext of so, so, so many D&D adventures, this is really about how they choose to navigate a particularly shitty situation. In this, I find the decisions far more interesting. “Will the players fight against a big bad evil?” is not a good place for roleplaying, but “Who will they decide to support in a city in the midst of a crisis?” opens those opportunities wide. 

The adventure is divided into six chapters, and interestingly enough doesn’t start at the beginning of this disappearing-factol crisis, but rather a couple weeks en media res. Again, this emphasizes that the world is bigger than the PCs, and the book offers plenty of advice about how to begin hinting at the events of Faction War long before running it. Once it does begin in earnest, the PCs are really introduced to this crisis when asked to be the bodyguards for the leader of the Xaositects. When he goes missing after being arrested, this only puts yet more of these factions at each other’s throats. The result is that players get to witness first hand how hostile and chaotic Sigil is becoming. 

I quite appreciate doomsaying prophets. Adding them to Planescape just feels right.

It’s the book’s second chapter, “The Battle at the Armory,” which might be the work’s highlight. Here, players take part in a large-scale attack on the Doomguards’ fortress, The Armory, and either work with them and the Anarchists or with the Harmonium and the Sensates to try and raze them to the ground. There’s no right or wrong answer here, it’s just a matter of who the players feel is in the right philosophically. Things go badly, though, when the aggressors accidentally break into the Doomguards’ stash of spheres of annihilation. These are kind of like miniature black holes, and while they don’t suck things into them, anything they touch is instantly disintegrated. It doesn’t take long for these spheres to destroy not just both sides of the conflict, but also the Armory and practically everything else nearby. Whoops.


Following that epic and incredibly-difficult-to-run encounter (which seems at least several sessions in length, at least the way I run things), players are given a breather with a small investigation into a group of end-of-the-multiverse doomsayers. This chapter is a bit of a red herring, but in a good way. One of the questions about these huge conflicts is how is this affecting the rest of the city, and the answer this chapter gives is that it’s in the midst of complete panic and dissolution. This type of break in pacing may seem odd when read, but I can tell you from experience that it’s a necessary part of running a campaign, and allows players to take more stock and think about the situation outside of combat. 

Adam Rex did some of his best work here.

Chapter four, “Darkstorm,” then brings us back into another big mess of fighting. One of the head Doomguards decides to get revenge for his decimated faction by unleashing a war between devils and demons right in the city. The players most likely help to keep this from getting completely out of hand, and also find a few hints as to what they might do to bring peace back to Sigil. Unfortunately, the only real way to end these fiendish hordes from wrecking the city is to close the portals, which the Lady of Pain proceeds to do… while also closing every other portal in the city. Needless to say, this doesn’t exactly keep the panic from growing worse. Shit has truly hit the fan.


Following this, the players head into Undersigil and have a few adventures there along the way while searching for the man holding a MacGuffin they need in order to fix things. I found the actual part of Undersigil shown here a bit underwhelming, and would actually expand on this chapter when running Faction War myself. It’s not bad, but it’s a bit generic for Planescape, and not particularly differentiated from other underground warrens. The actual location of the MacGuffin, Nowhere, is more interesting (it’s an interplanar safehouse), but again feels like it might be worth expanding upon. The ideas in this one chapter are interesting within the context of Sigil, but less so considering that this type of cave trawl is something most D&D players have done many times in the past. 

Once players make their way out from Undersigil, there isn’t that much of the adventure left, especially if they did a good job investigating things before. Assuming they got all the pieces in place (which likely means wrecking Tivvum’s Antiquities and its proprietor Alluvius Ruskin along the way, as well as perhaps learning some new secrets about A’Kin the Friendly Fiend), they work with the mage they found down there to cast a spell using the very streets of Sigil as its language to solve the issue of the portals, or the factions, or at least something. At this point, things are more open-ended, both because it’s quite possible for players to not put all the pieces together yet, and because what comes next is very much up to the players and what they want to do. Canonically, the Lady of Pain opens the portals and dissolves the factions, but there’s no reason this has to be how things go in your own campaign. 

I’m sorry, I find the whole dabus-are-judges concept entertainingly dumb.

The final 14 pages of the book are devoted to the canonical version of what happens next. This means explaining each of the factions’ futures, plus how the government of Sigil still manages to function (in short: dabus judges). Your mileage here will vary, as again, no one is forcing you to use this material in your own campaign. However, it’s an interesting glimpse at what might have come in Sigil, were there to actually be more Planescape adventures. As it stands, what happened here is planar canon, but Sigil itself, let alone its factions, will rarely be seen again after this release. 


Faction War ends up one of the strongest adventures in the entire setting, and one of the most enjoyable adventures to read I’ve ever discovered. This isn’t a surprise, given that it came from Cook and Vallese, but it also brought back the setting’s other wonderful editor Michele Carter and its superstar cartographers Rob Lazzaretti and Diesel. Unfortunately, Tony DiTerlizzi was unable to return with the rest of the gang, but Adam Rex and Hannibal King do a passable job of illustrating the book nonetheless. As a last hurrah for the setting (kind of…), it felt like everyone was doing their best work. 

Some people are always going to hate Faction War, but that’s less because of what it is than due to what they want it to be. What people generally want are sit-com-ish stories, where maybe the players have earned a level, but the status quo returns to normal. That was never the point here, and when judged on the standards of what it was attempting to do, upending the factions of Sigil and with this remaking the city as a fresh place to explore, Faction War is phenomenal. Sadly, I think the audience for this book is very small, as it really does require everyone playing to have investment in the setting, but for those who have grown familiar with Sigil, who’ve started feeling it’s as normal as a town anywhere else in the world, this is just the adventure to blow that attitude up. 

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