A Walk Through the Planes – Part 97: Darkness



One of the larger changes third edition made to D&D‘s cosmology was transforming the Plane of Shadows from a demiplane into a transitive plane coterminous with the Prime. And while this would make you think that perhaps Wizards had plans for doing something interesting with this change, that wasn’t really the case. Up until the “Darkness” issue of Dragon (#322, August 2004), it had gone pretty much unmentioned short of the Manual of the Planes and a couple obscure entries in the Fiend Folio. For the most part, our knowledge of this newly expanded plane was vague and, well, kind of boring. It was hard to say why anyone would want to visit the place, as it was just a darker and slightly more evil copy of the Prime. Frankly, I preferred the place as a demiplane, as at least then it had more of its own identity, even if details about it rarely appeared in earlier editions of the game either. 

Despite its title, the “Darkness” issue doesn’t do quite as much to rectify this problem as I (for no real reason) hoped it would1. Most of the articles tying into this theme are concerned with the underdark or broad ideas about running campaigns and making darkness a more pertinent part of adventures. Which, honestly, is probably more the sort of thing most people are interested in. The Plane of Shadow is a niche part of the game, and very few campaigns—even interplanar ones—had ever visited there; it’s just that it seemed like a ripe place for more specificity and investigation. At the end of fourth edition it received a full book fully devoted to the newly renamed Shadowfell, but given that era’s general crapitude I don’t have high expectations for what it entails. Until then, this is pretty much all we’re going to get (unless I’m forgetting something, which is definitely possible), and while it’s not nothing, it’s also not all that much more than nothing.

While I don’t care for Ashley Wood’s art for the city, their depiction of the beacon moth is evocative.

“Shadow’s City” focuses on Balefire, the City of Lanterns, which is noteworthy as one of the few locations in the Plane of Shadows that isn’t just a twisted reflection of what’s on the Prime. How this fits with the cosmology of the two locations corresponding with each other ends up a little bit iffy as a result—which has been the issue with this plane since its third edition reconception—but it’s still a well-developed place that I’m glad to see added to the multiverse. Originally founded by a dark elf refugee, it’s now ruled over by a mildly evil drow lich and is the primary hub for travelers visiting this plane. Its main points of interest are the Citadel of Lanterns, where lanterneers (a hilarious new word) craft lanterns to dispel the plane’s unending darkness, and the Shadowcrafters Hall, which is home to wizards and sorcerers who focus on shadow magic. Pretty basic stuff, but it gets the job done, so no complaints here.


The full description of Balefire ends up in a middle ground. It’s longer than the short half-page blurbs we’d sometimes receive in Planescape books, but it’s by no means lengthy, and DMs wishing to use this location are going to need to flesh things out a lot. What Phillip Larwood does achieve with this city profile is creating a place that feels unique from what we’ve seen elsewhere. Yes, Balefire is somewhat stereotypical, but that’s only to be expected given its location and the lack of any details we’ve seen about this plane before. The few flights of fancy, such as the beacon moth mounts used by the town’s residents and its renegade Nightshade Covenant trying to bring the town back into darkness, make it feel lively and help to seed adventures. No one’s minds will be blown by what’s here, but I’m happy with this new location for what it is, and hope it shows up again in future mentions of the plane. Before you can subvert a plane’s expectations, you first have to set them, and this is a good baseline for a settlement on this otherwise barren plane.

All hail the return of Rob Lazzaretti. I hope this isn’t the last we see from him in this series.

Best and most surprising of all, Balefire’s map is drawn by none other than Planescape’s own Rob(ert)2 Lazzaretti. As such, it’s a wonderful hand drawn piece of art that sets the tone of the location while also being useful for running a game here. It looks better in print than scanned, too, so ignore the image I included here being a bit rough. This map more than makes up for the rest of the piece’s accompanying artwork, which is mostly semi-abstract shadowy drawings of buildings that as far as I’m concerned add nothing of consequence to the article.


The other Plane of Shadow-themed content in the issue is a bit more peripherally related, though I think it’s still worthwhile and quite good. “Lord of Darkness” focuses on Erebus, an extremely obscure Grecian deity who now resides in the Plane of Shadows and makes the entire plane more or less his realm. If you don’t remember Erebus, it’s because he’s one of the primordial deities from this pantheon, hailing from the same chaos as his brethren Gaia, Uranus, Chronos, etc. He’s mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony, but that’s mostly it aside from even smaller references to him from Aristophanes and Plato. In any case, if there are more detailed stories about him I’m unaware of them, and as such have no idea how closely the article’s author, Nicholas J. Thalasinos, kept with the original mythology. And, well, who really cares? Here, it’s claimed that he existed before the Prime had anything in it (a la his Grecian primordial origins), and became so unhappy with the creation of matter within his void that he left for the Plane of Shadows. There, his hope is to destroy everything within the Prime and return the world back to emptiness. If you were playing with the Planescape cosmology intact, I can see folding him back into the Plane of Vacuum insteadm as he seems a better fit there thematically (and it would even give a reason for players to visit what’s generally an avoided plane), but as it stands this works fine enough, and does seem like the best location for him in this version of the multiverse. 


Until now, I haven’t covered new gods when they’ve occasionally cropped up in Dragon, as their planar content tends to be peripheral at best. With Erebus, though, it’s fundamental to his being, and also adds something to this otherwise blank slate of a location. There’s also a few bits of interesting planar lore included in his entry, most significantly that Erebus is likely the person who cursed the Shadar-Kai (the shadow fey first mentioned in the Fiend Folio). They were one of the more worthwhile additions from that book, so I hope we learn more about this in the future. Monster entries for shadow pseudo-elementals of all sizes and a prestige class for his followers fill out the rest of the article. For whatever reason, I ended up enjoying Erebus, and while he’s not quite as fully baked as I’d hoped, I’m still glad to see him added to the planes.

The art for Erebus does exactly what you’d think it would do, no more, no less.

As with so many of these Dragon articles, I will unfortunately be surprised if anything covered here ever comes up again. Which is too bad, because the Plane of Shadow really could use a city and deity of its own, and I doubt I’ll be happy with what fourth edition does with the place. The whole plane still feels lacking, but at least this pair of articles offers a starting point for adventures here. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if anything else crops up before Wizards throws its cosmology on the chopping block a few years down the road.

I still think atropals are a fantastic creature idea, and the scion is one you can actually include within a real campaign.

Oh, and while we’re still vaguely on the topic of “Darkness,” I thought I’d mention that I decided not to cover the Libris Mortis release as a full article next, despite it having a handful of new and updated planar creatures. The most notable new ones are undead elementals, some of whom are called necromentals (though some aren’t for reasons still unclear to me), a concept that seems kind of dumb and lazy. The updated monsters include a few entries from AD&D, in particular the visage and dream vestige, both of which have ties to Orcus and Planescape. There’s also the entropic reaper, undead from limbo, and atropal scions, who are the remnants of stillborn gods (atropals) that were hacked off and with this somehow stayed alive, or, uhh, unliving. However, I’ve grown bored of these monster update pieces, as, I suspect, has anyone who reads these essays, and just didn’t find this noteworthy enough to devote more than a paragraph to. If it hasn’t become clear by now, nearly every splatbook Wizards published during the third edition/3.5 era had at least a few new monsters, oftentimes with at least one planar entry, but they went immediately forgotten and are so minor that even I have difficulty caring. 


Libris Mortis also includes tiny bits of new lore about Orcus, particularly a weird cult called the Lurkers in Shadow who hilariously follows Tenebrous and refuses to acknowledge Orcus’ return. If you do actually run Dead Gods, featuring them at a later date after the campaign is complete is a fun idea. Mostly, though, it reiterates what we already know about Orcus, and doesn’t move his storyline forward. It’s a good book if you’re into 3.5 undead, but not worth even skimming through if you’re just here for planar content. 

  1. This is another issue of Dragon with an alarming editorial by Matthew Sernett. Here, he proposes a campaign setting that seems like it basically became fourth edition’s almost fascinatingly dull and generic Points of Light non-setting. It’s only weird to read in retrospect, I suppose, given how bad of an idea that ended up being, but any hints at future fourth edition changes give me a sense of foreboding. Oh yeah, and in case you can’t tell, I think that edition is quite bad. I’m not really looking forward to getting there, as fourth edition had a ton of planar content but was also a shitshow that wrecked the game’s cosmology, not to mention game mechanics. I suppose at least it will have a lot of surprises in store, since it’s the only edition where I’ve read very little of the lore before now. 
  2. He’s credited here as Robert for the first time rather than Rob. Maybe that means he no longer works for Wizards as of this publication? I have no idea. 

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to get the latest Exposition Break articles sent to your inbox.