Vortex of Madness

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 67: Vortex of Madness




When is an adventure module not an adventure module at all? No, that’s not a riddle, as the answer is quite simple: when it’s Vortex of Madness, the final of the pseudo-Planescape books published at the very end of second edition AD&D. I remember discovering it in high school, reading the first bit, and deciding pretty quickly that the whole thing wasn’t for me. This first section involves a weird scenario in Limbo with a linear, uninteresting (try-hard) dungeon surrounding a super powerful yet somehow dull artifact. All of it seemed kind of hacked together and poorly written, and as a result I never made it past that first chapter. I’d long considered the book a complete misfire based upon those first experiences, and never read the entire thing until just recently for this series. Turns out, I was both right and wrong. That first section is in fact just as dull and skippable as I remembered; however, the rest of the book is an excellent planar release well worth a read from anyone who enjoyed Planescape.

The reason for this rather miserable entrypoint for the book is quite simple: it wasn’t supposed to be there at all. Shannon Appelcline wrote an excellent history of this work, and I think the best thing for us to do now is to quote it at length:


Vortex of Madness was contracted as a book called Planar Sites. This would have made it the fourth of the generic sites books, following City Sites (1994), Castle Sites (1995), and Country Sites (1995). The idea was to mix planar material into the core D&D line, for groups who didn’t like the very distinctive look of the Planescape books. As low man on the RPG R&D totem pole, Pramas was given this project. He produced a book of disparate and unconnected sites that definitely was not an adventure.

After receiving the manuscript, Wizards decided that the book would sell better as an adventure—even though adventures were the worst-selling sort of supplement. An offsite developer took over the manuscript and linked the sites into a sort-of adventure. He also added in features like a village of cheese people who lived on a cheese lake that contained the Mighty Servant of Leuk-o; editor and developer Jennifer Clarke Wilkes decided to omit that last element as too cheesy.

Hahaha. Oh, Shannon, what a zinger. Zing! Ok maybe he’s a better historian than he is a comedian….

This is literally all that’s in one of the Vortex’s challenges. What a bleh of an adventure.

Anyhow, there’s a very obvious and dramatic shift in quality between this first adventure, which stupidly enough gave the book its name, and the work Chris Pramas originally produced. I suspect that this off-site editor mentioned by Appelcline is Harold Johnson, but that’s just based upon the product’s credits including him as “development.” In any case, this first adventure involves the Machine of Lum the Mad, which was one of the very old school artifacts originally included in 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry, though I think most people are more familiar with it (if at all) from a surprise appearance in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. I’m not going to dwell anymore on this initial part except to say that there are also tiny insertions into the rest of the manuscript about how to link this dopey storyline together as a reason to visit the book’s other locations. All of this is best ignored in its entirety. 

Fortunately, all four of Pramas’ original locations are inspired. They fit perfectly into the Planescape version of the Great Wheel, and offer wonderful details and plot hooks that can easily fit into any planar campaign. The first of these is The Black Acropolis, which involves a conflict between the titans stuck in Carceri. A pair of Zeus’ spurned ex-wives hatch a plot to get out of their prison, and players can easily involve themselves by helping the titans, helping the titan lord Cronus who won’t want to be left behind, or perhaps working with the Olympians to stop any of this from coming to pass. Aside from offering an interesting glimpse into this frequently-mentioned but rarely-explored part of Grecian mythology, it’s even possible for players to awaken the “dead” god Uranus. In general, I find planar stories involving real world mythologies pretty lousy, but for once this one has me excited. It involves the possibility for real change, which is usually resisted by these things, and while it may involve interacting with the Powers themselves (another trope that usually fails miserably), for once doing so makes some sense. 

I’m a big fan of demiplanes in weird shapes. No reason they can’t be a pyramid, or anything else for that matter.

At this point, I was game for anything else Pramas decided to try, and he really didn’t disappoint with the second location, the Demiplane of Invention, aka Leonis. A plane either found or possibly created through the wish of a slightly mad archmage, Leonis has its own set of rules for how magics and physics interact. Here, form and function are intrinsically related, and as such if things seem like they should work, then most likely they will. The plane’s discoverer, also named Leonis, has been creating weird magic-mechanical inventions since then, even to the point of creating new life, but the demiplane has also been discovered by others. In particular, Tinker gnomes from Krynn have found themselves enamored of this location, and some have even created a church devoted to worshiping the archmage. A few of the adventure hooks here include finding a way for Leonis’ inventions to work elsewhere in the planes, in which case they might tip the scales of the Blood War, or perhaps the wars on some Prime Material Plane. It all reminds me a bit of what Monte Cook was doing with Tales from the Infinite Staircase in terms of creating a strange demiplane with its own laws and ecosystem, only here the demiplane is a lot less bleak. 


The third of Pramas’ locations takes players to The Fortress of Gith Reborn, a site in the Astral Plane of an ongoing civil war amongst the githyanki. One of the central conceits of this race has long been the (likely) betrayal of Gith herself by her advisor Vlaakith, whose descendents have henceforth controlled the race. It’s (likely) this betrayal was central to the githyanki alliance with red dragons, but for the most part githyanki have always been encouraged not to think so much about this quite obvious treachery. However, a githyanki hero named Zellor began having visions that she believes come from Gith, such that she is in fact Gith reborn. Since then, she’s taken control of a major githyanki outpost and begun waging war against Vlaakith’s lich queen descendent and her minions. Players can easily become involved in this war on either side, as just because Zellor is a hero doesn’t mean she’s not plenty evil herself, and aside from detailing the conflict there’s a quite excellent and lengthy description of Zellor’s current base. The githynaki are one of only a few planar topics that would see a great deal of expansion in the future, and I’ll be curious to see whether any of these ideas get played with again.

An important scene from the city’s history, but this also greatly exaggerates the number of dragons you’ll find in the City of Glass.

The final chapter, The City of Glass, takes up about a third of the full book, and with good reason. First mentioned by Monte Cook in The Inner Planes (at least, that’s the first I was able to find reference to this location), The City of Glass was introduced as “The Sigil of the Elements.” Not only does it have many portals and gates to other locations, it’s also a crossroads where any race is welcome, so long as they don’t disrupt things too much with violence. Cook even set this up as akin to Sigil in that it was ruled by a council of 15 groups, although these are more traditionally divided along racial lines rather than the philosophical ones we find in Sigil. However, other than a few paragraphs about it, that was all we ever really learned about the City of Glass, which meant actually using it for your campaign would be quite a feat. 

Pramas’ final location doesn’t really have the adventure hooks of his first three (I suspect they may have been removed in order to fit the page length), but it does feature an absolute ton of detail. Following a history of the City of Glass and how its strange alliance came to be, plus some general information about life in the city, the rest of the chapter is devoted to describing all 15 of the city’s districts in depth. The amount of thought put into this is generous, explaining why merfolk live in the outskirts while cloud giants live above the city in a slave-infested pleasure dome called The Reverie (oh, and yeah, there’s a whole lot of sex slavery going on here, which many will want to change for their own campaigns…). Want to know the relationship between the local dwarves and the sea elves, or the marids and the sahuagin? Pramas has you covered. 

Gladiator sahuagin doing their thing in the city’s arena.

What leads players to this location isn’t included, but frankly that’s unnecessary. Hell, you can easily run a city campaign out of here much like you would for Sigil or Waterdeep or anywhere else. Like any other trade metropolis, there are a thousand and one adventure hooks readily available for any but the most barren mind. One of the real problems of running a planar campaign centered around the Inner Planes was always the need for a base, and while Cook supplied the idea, it’s Pramas’ execution that makes this something I’d actually want to try. Let’s face it, there are a lot of locations in the Planes, but few of them are given much detail. For once, we receive that detail, and the result of all this makes the City of Glass feel like a real city, to the point that this is the most usable location in perhaps all of the Inner Planes.


And did I mention that once a month the City of Glass features “Selkie Week,” where all the local selkies from the Plane of Water come into town and go nuts being hedonistic? Or that there’s a large area of the city named Wormtown consisting largely of ormyrr worms, a weirdo race of huge, sentient worms that haven’t been seen since third edition? Needless to say, there’s a ton of fun stuff here, and the City of Glass has been a criminally underused location since this release. 

The book’s original version of the City of Glass.

Unfortunately, this is yet another planar book illustrated by Hannibal King, who is just as middling-to-poor as ever. For the most part Vortex‘s art is just forgettable and not actively bad, though at one point it’s given a full page spread, and blowing King’s work up to that size really doesn’t do it any favors. Fortunately, the cartography was by Dennis Kauth and Rob Lazzarretti, but while their work is fine enough, it’s not particularly inspired compared to what we saw in Planescape. In all, even the maps are a bit underwhelming for planar sites, and a bit more generic than what we’re used to. Which I suppose is the point, since this was a generic-branded book, but still, the book’s art and design doesn’t do Vortex any favors. 


Despite all of these things going against it, from poor art to a badly tacked on adventure to the lack of even any guidance about player levels (“For High-Level Heroes!” reads the cover, which of course means almost nothing), Vortex of Madness is a secret success. I prefer it to either of the previous two generic-branded planar-themed books, and given its Planescape-esque focus on ideas and characters it’s still very much usable today, despite its plethora of second edition AD&D stat blocks. 

Caeora’s version of the City of Glass. He also has a labelled version available, but the words get in the way of his excellent art so I went with this one.

Oh, and while researching this book, I stumbled upon an absolutely gorgeous new rendition of the City of Glass by the fabulous cartographer and artist Caeora. It doesn’t exactly match with the book’s version (while the districts are still largely the same, their locations are shuffled around a lot), but I still prefer it to the original because its lack of so much symmetry makes the city feel more real. That he made it free for anyone to use is another good reason to check out this book and adapt it for your own planar campaigns. 

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