The Plane Truth

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 8: The Plane Truth



It feels fitting that as we finally come to the first appearance of Planescape itself, I find myself invoking one of the setting’s three, somewhat nonsensical yet still-guiding principles: the unity of rings. The varied planes of existence began in The Dragon Magazine, and we must return there for the beginning of Planescape1. Also fitting is that in contrast with Gary Gygax’s original, crunch-filled article describing the planes, Planescape began with a burst of pure fluff, which is to say a short story. That’s right, we’re stepping away from games entirely for some good old fashioned fiction analysis.

In March of 1994, part I of “The Plane Truth” by David “Zeb” Cook was published in issue #203, and would soon be followed in the next two months’ issues by parts II and III. As one of the last things he would write for TSR before leaving it behind for the world of video game development—he would most famously be involved in the creation of Fallout 2—it was written as support for Planescape, the setting he had just created and would immediately have to leave behind in the hands of others. And while yes, the marketing purposes of this story are impossible-to-miss, “The Plane Truth” also shows off that had he wished it, Cook, could’ve probably been one hell of an author as well as a seminal game designer.


Let’s begin with the story’s form. That he chose to break it into three chapters isn’t surprising, given the setting’s other dictate, the Rule-of-Three (that things tend to happen in threes simply because that’s how the universe works), but it’s equally fitting that this story is told serially. Planescape is set in a pseudo-Victorian world, and serialization is the way stories were told in that period. By offering us serialization alongside spindly, old-stylized pieces of art, we’re already being sent into a different world and type of storytelling. Instead of the epic adventures of Dragonlance or the gothic horror of Ravenloft, this story offers us Victorian pastiche mixed with 1970s postmodernism, a combination of which might be said to encompass almost the whole of what made this setting so different from every other roleplaying world and in fact most fantasy worlds of any medium. 

This art, published alongside Part I, has nothing to do with the story and everything (I suspect) with marketing selling the game through sex. Not one of Tony DiTerlizzi’s, or the setting’s, proudest moments.

Postmodernism attacks us formally almost as early as the Victorianism. While each of the three parts is told through a different form, none of them are traditional prose, instead we have a sort of encyclopedia, then diary entries, then finally a transition into a sort of dream-like version of first-person perspective. The obvious influence on this form is Jorge Luis Borges and his imitators, especially considering the meta-fictional construct is given such a short space to play within. The stakes here aren’t as large as they tend to be in literary fiction, but that’s the only thing that really separates this generically from other phantasmagorical texts of this sort.

So as this is a story about stories, it’s not long before we’re given an encyclopedic entry on Planescape itself, which is described by the narrator as:

PLANESCAPETM campaign setting: In another reality, there exists a game and for that game there are imagined worlds. One of these is the PLANESCAPE campaign set. In it are three books that describe worlds that never were. Some of the players of this game imagine themselves

as people who never were—humans, dwarves, half-elves, goat-centaur bariaur, githzerai, and tieflings, the smoke-tinged children of corrupted creatures. They pretend strange philosophies and invest their creations with powers beyond in their own prosaic lives. They explore their imaginary worlds with the maps that come with the box, maps that chart landscapes created for their pleasure.

In this game world there is a city called Sigil, impossible in their own reality. The city is a ring that floats over a spire whose height is beyond measuring. Sigil is the home for their imaginary people, their heroes. From it, their characters travel by magical doorways to distant towns and strange lands. Back to Sigil their heroes return to celebrate their imagined victories. In their journeys they meet other creatures no less fantastic than themselves. They create races to fill the spaces they have imagined—modrons, servants of Set, marrenoloth, and vortexes—and write descriptions of them into the box.

The easy question would be, of course, who dreams who? Is this world the creation of those who imagine it in play, or are they mere fictions of this realm? But the hard question is this. Of the two worlds, one is truthful, while the other one lies, so who created the honest world?

This questioning of reality versus the imaginary or dream-space, if that isn’t influenced by Borges then what is? Planescape, then, is self-consciously a constructed space, determined by both the beliefs of its characters and the beliefs of its players, and the interaction between these two not-necessarily-opposed spaces sets up a strange mythos for this world, real and unreal at the same time.

What impresses me so much about this is that despite Cook’s obvious need and desire to explain through his story what exactly Planescape is (this is, at root, still a form of marketing), that barely detracts from the story he’s trying to tell. In this, Borges also proves a wise guide, as cribbing from his stories allows Cook to focus on character, image, and idea rather than plot. Considering that this is the exact opposite from where most fantasy placed its emphasis at the time, this is particularly bold. I do not wish to claim that Cook’s work succeeds at the level of his influences, but at the same time I do like the story, and consider it quite an accomplishment from a purely literary standpoint, as inseparable as that may be from its goal of introducing readers to the setting. 

The art from Sigil makes more sense with the story, but still isn’t particularly noteworthy.

Aside from that entry about Planescape midway through Part I, there are also entries on Sigil, the Lady of Pain, several factions, and even some odd philosophical constructs that aren’t a part of the game at all, chiefly the “Aleax of Sigil.” The Aleax is probably the most confusing and also weakest part of the story, but it still gets the setting’s tone right and sets us up for putting an emphasis on the dream logic of this world. If reality and even the gods are determined by what we believe, then what are the full ramifications of this? The Aleax is just one of these, and works as an example of just how strange the setting is willing to allow these concepts to be. 


While Part I is narrated by Fallendor the Mage, a barely developed stereotypical mage from the Forgotten Realms world trying to document the dreams he’s been having that seem infused by a book that may or may not even be real, the Codex of Infinite Planes, Part II and the beginning of Part III are narrated by “Ambran the Seeker, half-elven paladin of Oghma’s temple at the court of Azoun IV; king of Cormyr.” He’s also from the same world, though he and Fallendor have no knowledge of each other, and he’s simply journaling his adventures in the outer planes for posterity. He’s an explorer and an idiot, i.e. a stand-in for the reader.

While Fallendor is intelligent but barely a character, Ambran is “clueless” in the true Planescape sense of the word, both inexperienced and a tad dull2. He believes everything he’s been told about the planes, only to soon learn that his mentor, the dubiously qualified Sage Trandleer, didn’t know the first thing about what he was talking about before sending Ambran off to other worlds. He hires a bariaur (the “goat-centaur” people mentioned earlier) named Glin as a guide and soon sets off to see the wonders of the multiverse. 

This guy just looks like any random fantasy dude to me.

While Part I allowed Cook to offer glimpses of Sigil, changing narrators offers the opportunity to explore elsewhere. Ambran visits the realms of several gods in the Outlands as well as a few gate towns, and he does so with the wonder of an enthusiastic player character due to his rube-ish outlook. It’s a smart way of engrossing readers, hinting at so much more to be found if they’d be willing to give the setting a chance. Plus, this means Cook can use slightly less pretentious prose, which occasionally became a hindrance in the first part (though all three parts have the same annoying issues with possessive apostrophes, which I guess I should blame more on the editor than Cook).


But the real coup arrives with the conclusion, as Part III explains what these two narrators have to do with each other. Unsurprisingly, this has to do with that mystical artifact from Part I, the Codex of Infinite Planes, which was lost “since before my time, the time of my father the time of all my known ancestors” [sic]. Before likely forgetting about it due to the wonders visited elsewhere, we learn that Fallendor had a theory about the codex:

I do not think it exists yet, at least not as a material thing. It exists only in the world of sleep. There it reveals itself, a page each night, and every morning I dutifully transcribe its pages into the world of flesh.

Part III shows that Falendor wasn’t speaking purely metaphorically, with flesh as a metaphor for the tangible world apart from dreams. He meant flesh as in skin, though not exactly his own. Ambran notices tattoos of strange words appearing on his body. As these grow, he realizes they describe the planes, and not only that they’re compelling him to visit what’s described. He consults a sage, who explains to him that he’s being overwritten by the Codex, and that soon the author will take over him. When asked what he can do to prevent this, the sage merely laughs at him and reveals that he’s of course a demon from the Abyss who wouldn’t help Ambran even if he knew how. 

No one reading just this story will have any clue who the Doomguard are, but at least this one’s slightly less cheesecake than the first drawing. Slightly.

Yet Fallendor doesn’t succeed in freeing himself from the Codex either. “There are parts of Ambran left behind that press me to act against my will … I wonder if he too is a slave of the Codex?” Moreso than this, though, is what happens at the very ending of the story, which feels much like something John Barth might have come up with, concerned as it is with the meta-fictional power of storytelling. “My passions are printed on this face; these hands describe the childhood of another body. All the things that Fallendor was are written for everyone to see—his hopes and his final treachery. People see this tattooed face and shun me. Words still enslave me.” 


While this story isn’t a masterpiece, it is shockingly good and worth reading. Sadly, while the artwork was done by Tony DiTerlizzi and Dana Knutson, the primary artist and art director for the Planescape line, it is not their best work. I only particularly like the piece by DiTerlizzi that accompanies Part III, while Part I’s piece by him is needlessly oversexualized (I suspect marketing had a hand in its selection) and Part II’s doesn’t come out well on the pages, at least not in the scans I’ve read. The emblems for the factions and sketches of Sigil also come off more cryptic than anything else, and none of these seem a great fit for the story. While they do give a bit of a sense for the campaign setting, most of the artistic decisions were an egregious misfire considering that so much of the setting’s artwork is excellent. 

I’ve never read any other stories by Cook and couldn’t tell you anything about how this relates to other fiction he might have written—he’s known far more as a game designer, and I’m not even sure where to look for other examples of his work in fiction. But this one story we’re offered is fittingly inspired and one of my favorite pieces of writing intended to tie-in with a game. It’s mysterious and enchanting and has a true respect for the reader. I would guess that even of the small niche of people who are still Planescape fans (and judging from our website’s traffic since I began this series, it is even unpopular by our standards, which really says something) few people have read it, which is a pity. Do yourself a favor and rectify this, and then you can join me  wishing that the rest of the fiction written for the setting was half this good. Don’t worry, though—aside from mentioning its existence, I won’t be doing much writing about the Planescape novels, as I don’t plan on reattempting to read them as an adult given how painful even a first attempt was when I was 16 or 17. Now let’s get back to the game. 

1. The magazine slightly renamed itself to Dragon Magazine by this point but continued otherwise the same—eventually it would be just Dragon

2. That being said, he also claims to have “arrived in Sigil by spell.” This either means he’s lying and keeping back from us, as this is impossible… or Cook wrote an accidental plot hole of sorts into his story. I have more fun going with the first reason, even if it’s in some ways less likely than the latter.

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