Planescape Campaign Setting

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 9: Planescape Campaign Setting



I figured that after eight of these essays about D&D‘s planar setting, with I don’t even know how many thousands of words between them, I’d have some sort of idea by now about how to cover the actual Planescape Campaign Setting release when I finally came to it. Nope, I’m still stymied. While a part of me wants to go into minute detail about the four books, four posters, plus Dungeon Master screen and still-gorgeous box that make up this whole package (for only $30!!!), that approach seems a bit wrong. The Campaign Setting is not the sum of its texts, it’s a total experience in the way the best game products are. You open the box and are confronted with an aesthetic that encompasses the words, the design, the art, even the choice of paper. This is a set of materials a Sensate could get behind, and after all these years it still feels like a luxury product, designed out of passion and perhaps some obsession. It is grand and perhaps too much, and if anything the extravagance seems even more at-odds with so many other RPG products, both before and after its release. 

The Campaign Setting was designed by David “Zeb” Cook in just six months, and while it was built out of many materials we’ve already covered, I still find that singular achievement crazy impressive. Of course Cook wasn’t alone in this effort, and in fact wasn’t even the “Project Coordinator, which was Dori Jean Hein whose role in shepherding the entire setting is probably too understated by most people who’ve covered the line, but the core of its idea seems to have come from him. The instructions management gave him for designing the new campaign setting was that it should make as much use of the Manual of the Planes as possible, but also find a way to allow low-level characters to actually survive. Cook’s answer to this was Sigil and the Lady of Pain, an image of whose face graces Planescape’s logo and whose centricity to the game belies the claim that there is no center to the multiverse. Planescape isn’t just Sigil, but without Sigil there would be no Planescape.


Sigil is the “City of Doors,” which is to say that it has portals that lead to everywhere in the multiverse. The inner planes, the outer planes, level 667 of the Abyss, whatever, if a DM is interested in taking the party somewhere then Sigil has a way for them to visit. At the same time, it’s also ONLY connected to the rest of the multiverse through these portals, which allows the game to cheat some of the multitudinous planar rules it had been building up until then. This is all controlled by the Lady of Pain, an omnipotent figure who largely serves to keep the gods, or anyone else so powerful they might upset the city/game’s status quo, out of town. Essentially, Cook’s answer to making this universe habitable to everyone was to recreate the traditional D&D town structure despite the nearby presence of gods and demons by establishing Sigil as a town for low-level adventures, the Outlands just outside of it as a border frontier, and the outer and inner planes as the true wilderness, filled with dangers only worth braving by the most powerful adventurers.

The other revolutionary part of Cook’s version of the planes was to theme the multiverse, to make it about belief and fuse this into a tangible part of the multiverse that touches everyone and everything within it. If the planes are all about competing faiths and how the interplay between them meshes with the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, then the stakes are far removed from those of a traditional Tolkien-inspired fantasy campaign. Cook was interested in the implications of knowing, for sure, that gods are real and what your rewards and punishments for how you acted while alive will play out when dead. Faith here is something you can touch or visit, it’s something that can be experienced firsthand. Nonetheless, the result of this proximity to the gods isn’t holy wars, it’s philosophical wars, and so we’re introduced to the setting’s famous factions, filled as they are with “philosophers with clubs.” In short, Planescape’s characters are aware of the “what” of existence in a way that’s impossible for us living in reality, it’s the “why” that everyone is still yet to figure out.


For most players, all of this is introduced quite quickly through “A Player’s Guide to the Planes,” 32 pages to explain the infinities of the multiverse. As with the rest of the box, the most noticeable thing here is probably the graphics design. Dana Knutson was the conceptual artist for the series, while Tony DiTerlizzi did most of the actual artwork (at least early on), plus others like Robh ruppel and Rob Lazzaretti contributed cover art and cartography (all of which is stellar). But what strikes me so much in comparison with practically everything else in D&D up until now is the uniformity. Cook stresses the attitude of the world, a certain cynical weariness mixed with wonder, and we find this all throughout the design regardless of the artist. Everything is grandiose yet weathered. I’ve seen it described as steampunk, but that couldn’t be further from the truth no only because there’s no steam, but also because of the griminess that comes from the setting’s sense of age. One of the oddities of the planes before now was how pedestrian they could feel, and in order to change this everyone involved needed to collaborate to create a certain otherworldly tinge, to create a new genre of fantasy entirely.

The Lady of Pain in all her glory.

Once players actually read the book, they’re probably struck by the voice. It begins, “Welcome, addle-cove! … So where to begin? Sigil, of course—there ain’t no other place worth beginning.” I can’t contrast this to the super-dry first edition D&D books enough, nor does it read at all the same as today’s fifth-edition professionalism. From the very first sentence, Planescape is telling by way of showing, and fits its prose and images to the idea that the planes don’t really give a crap about players. This is a world that existed long before you did and will be here long after you leave, and as such it doesn’t need to adapt to you, you need to adapt to it. You need a guide to get around because at least for a while everyone you meet will be more worldly and knowledgeable than you are. You may be the game’s protagonist, but you’re certainly not the world’s. You are not the center of everything, even if the very structure of storytelling makes this difficult to excise.

Another oddity of the “Player’s Guide” is that this book is barely interested in rules at all, it’s all about theme, tone, and idea. Aside from a line or two at the end of every faction description and a couple of lines in the descriptions for new races, there’s no crunch here at all. Instead, the book wants to introduce players to the rules of the multiverse and the ideas of the factions, and with all of this it places the onus on players to roleplay and become a part of this world. This de-emphasis on crunch means that about 31-or-so of the book’s 32 pages are spent with prose, which tells players what to put their own emphasis on, i.e. roleplaying. Can you fight here? Sure, but we’re not going to spend five pages on that, instead we’ll spend those pages explaining how to get from an inner plane to an outer plane and what all of this has to do with the Godsmen. This isn’t The Throne of Bloodstone Bloodstone where we’re out here to beat up the Monster Manual, what players need to know in order to get by in this world is how to get help from a committed nihilist standing between them and the portal they need.

Even the covers of the books are evocative as hell.

The result of all this fluff, the sometimes endless-seeming descriptions of the planes and factions that continues all through the set, is that actually playing in this campaign setting today isn’t hard. Very little of the set is about rules, and to be honest most of those rules that do poke their way into the books are weird leftovers from older D&D editions or attempts at making logical sense out of what is fundamentally an illogical and magical world. In fact, the only parts of this box that aged poorly are the pages dealing with magic and spellcasting (i.e. most everything found on the backside of the DM’s screen). To actually use these rules requires a lot of book-keeping and table-checking and is stuff that I have left out entirely of my own Planescape campaigns, both today and way back in early high school when I first ran adventures here. It’s not too surprising that the worst thing about the setting is that even when it’s pushing at the boundaries of what’s capable in the game, it’s still ultimately centered around D&D


Both of these first two books proffer necessary explanations for this strange new world the box proposes to set role playing games within, but they’re also not really things people will return to much once they’ve spent any time in the world. You read them once, maybe refer briefly to the faction write-ups later, but otherwise they stay in the box. Everything about these introductory texts, from the factions to the planes, would soon be expanded upon in much more detail later in the line. It’s the third book, “Sigil and Beyond,” that’s the real gem of the collection, coming in at 96 pages of description and plot ideas.


Well ok, the first 13 pages of this are largely skippable and probably should’ve been included in the “Dungeon Master’s Guide to the Planes” (I suspect it ended up here for page-length design reasons). But after this, there’s lengthy descriptions of various sites to visit in the Outlands, followed by even more places to visit in Sigil itself, and then some basic information about who and what else might be found in the city. The meat of things here is that “Sigil” does its damndest to explain why each of these locations might be interesting for players to visit, and offers dozens of plot hooks as it goes. These are helpful not just because they hint at where the setting would go in the future, but because they show off to DMs possible ideas for how to run this place. One of the ideas of Planescape is that every major plane is infinite, and there are more than 30 of them, so how do you turn that into a coherent story? Well, here’s some places to visit and some interesting threads to pull at in each of these locations. None of these are grand or fleshed-out, but then they’re not supposed to be, that’s left for DMs to figure out on their own. Moreso than the other books in the set, “Sigil” is about setting your mind stirring about what really is possible in this setting. 

Seeing this map was, for me, love at first sight.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t write at least a little about my favorite part of the set: the posters. Admittedly they’re kind of unwieldy to use at a game table, but I’m totally ok with that considering that it’s easy to find manageable versions scanned online. But more than this, they work with the rest of the set to emphasize scope. They are big, and they cover massive areas, and yet even so there’s not a ton of detail within them because given the infinities being dealt with that’s not possible. They’re impressionistic maps, lacking any sort of scale, which work with the rest of the design to impart that normal ideas about even things like mapmaking need to be discarded here. They’re both highly legible and completely in-style with the rest of the setting. As with DiTerlizzi’s art, there’s a combination of detail and sketchiness to the maps that asks readers and players to use their imagination, to infer at things that aren’t actually on the page. The entire Campaign Setting is like that, giving us enough to get a sense of what things are like, but still leaving much of the world to be filled in. The contrast between this setting and, say, the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance world is huge. Planescape is never quite knowable, its maps always changing and only useful as a rough guide, which is a lot of its enchantment. 

I haven’t written much about the 32-page booklet of creatures (most of which will, weirdly, probably never be used even in a Planescape game) included with the set, or the (largely skippable) adventure hooks, or even the frequently sublime art that adorns so many pages, and I’m not sure why. I guess it’s that I’m still at a loss for how to do it. The campaign setting is the start of the setting, but it also feels more than a bit incomplete, giving us thousands of small details yet hinting at so many more. It’s not my favorite release in the series, and it’s not one I actually come back to much as a reference because it is, at heart, only an introduction. But it’s also a singular accomplishment and seems like it’s about as good as it could have been, wonky magic rules and all. Cook and everyone else involved hit it out of the park here, making the foundations that the rest of the setting were built off of both open-ended and strong. I’ve now spent quite a few hours rereading everything here and then writing and editing this little essay, and still I don’t feel like I have much perspective on the box. It’s lovely, it’s wondrous, and it’s both central to the entire setting and almost useless for someone playing it today, all at once. 

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