DM Tips Introduction to Planescape Life in Sigil

Factions Need Extremists and Moderates

Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” has inspired more half-baked college philosophy discussions than any other phrase in the multiverse.  It also inspired the half-baked philosophy of The Sign of One, one of the 15 Factions based in Sigil in DND’s Planescape campaign setting. Members of the Sign of One believe that because we can only be sure of our own existence, everything else exists only as part of our imagination.

Now the Sign of One, though an egregious example, are not alone among Sigil’s Factions in terms of taking a reasonable theory and twisting it far beyond its “logical” conclusion.  All of the Factions, as written, read as caricatures of philosophy in a setting specifically designed to encourage philosophical discussion.  That begs the question: if you want to encourage philosophical discussion, why make factions unreasonable and difficult for players to seriously engage with?

In-game, the Factions’ half-baked philosophy raises an even bigger question:  Why does the Lady of Pain allow amateur philosophers to dominate power in Sigil, the center of the multiverse, when she does not allow the gods to even step foot in the city?  Chris Perkins, in a Dragon Talk interview on The Lady of Pain, reflects on the meaning of this decision by Our Lady:

“The fact that she allows the factions to operate in her city, more than they operate anywhere else in the multiverse, suggests that she is sensitive to philosophy, or that she likes it, or wants it, or wants it around her.  And not just one philosophy. She wants the debate. She wants all of them. She wants to see how it’s going to shake down. She wants to see people challenge each other in a forum. If you think of Sigil like a forum, where there’s all these sort of competing interests and beliefs, the fact that she’s letting that happen says something about the nature of her and the multiverse.”

It makes sense that a being who controls the center of an alignment-based multiverse would want to be surrounded by philosophers.  But it begs the question: why this motley crew?

Factions Don’t Have One Philosophy--They Have a Belief Spectrum

My answer: factions don’t hold one philosophy but rather occupy a spectrum of belief. All members of that faction fall somewhere along its belief spectrum.  At the moderate end of the spectrum, beliefs are reasonable, qualified by common sense and empirical reality, and they supplement each other. At the extreme end of the spectrum, beliefs are dogmatic, applied universally despite extenuating circumstances or contradictory evidence, and exist in a state of constant struggle with other beliefs.  

These moderate and extreme forces within each faction exist in a state of constant flux, one side gaining the upper hand for a time but never fully eradicating the other.  Competition for followers and influence means that extremism in one faction breeds extremism in another, while moderation brings about moderation, so one often finds that either extremists or moderates hold the upper hand in most of Sigil’s factions.

Sigil now finds itself in a moment of extremism.  The kriegstanz, or undeclared ideological war among Sigil’s factions, is a direct result.  But this has not always been the case. At points in their history, the moderate elements of Sigil’s factions have held sway.  If one were to visit Sigil during those points in time, the whole enterprise would make sense, as factions would debate practical ideas and help one another hone their beliefs.  Consequently, Our Lady is not tacitly supporting 15 factions of addle-coved barmies, but rather 15 factions that gradually course correct as they veer between extremism and moderation.  

Our World Functions Like This Too

It should not be difficult for denizens of Earth to imagine a world where ideological extremists take power within a political or philosophical system, or to imagine the damage such extremists could inflict on the world.  Take Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which led not only to numerous technological innovations and a transformation of how we view ourselves, but also to Social Darwinism and the rise of Nazi ideology. When factions in our world are dominated by those on the extreme end of the belief spectrum, dire consequences result.

Effect on Gameplay

In our world, the best philosophical debates focus on drawing the line that marks the ideal point of balance on a philosophical spectrum, the location where proponents of an idea are sufficiently empowered to achieve positive results but sufficiently tempered so as not to cause undue harm.  For example, when talking about genetic modification, how do we balance its moral and biological risks with its potentially life-saving benefits? Where should we draw that line?

Planescape games likewise benefit by framing philosophical debates as a struggle between moderate and extreme forces.  It is easier for players to decide where their characters fit on a belief spectrum than to create beliefs from scratch.  Creating a spectrum of beliefs also encourages players to think about questions in shades of gray rather than black and white, which encourages discussion and reflection.  

Beyond making it easier for players to immerse themselves in the philosophical aspects of the Planescape setting, creating moderate and extremist wings of each faction also makes it easier for GMs to create NPC faction members.  Every subfaction (i.e., the moderates or extremists in each faction) should have a leader, and the leader’s goal should be to move the faction in their preferred direction. The DM can slot other NPCs into either group, or decide to make them unaligned and designate more specifically where they fall upon that faction’s belief continuum.

PCs likely will identify more with the moderates of each faction.  Given that moderates presently form the minority in most factions, moderate leaders will seek help from outside forces (the PCs) to improve their standing in their faction, setting up quests that align with the PCs’ own philosophical views.  PCs will take factions more seriously and be more likely to join them if they meet moderate members, and more factions will become viable options if their beliefs aren’t framed as outlandishly.

Designing Moderate & Extreme Wings for Each Faction

Now that we’ve seen how framing problems -- and factions -- on a belief spectrum adds value to our Planescape games, let’s create moderate and extreme wings of each faction.  This task is a heavy lift, so this week I will go through the exercise in detail for one faction, the Athar. In my next article, I will provide moderate and extreme wings for all 15 factions, which I will thereafter list on the Faction HQ page.  

Faction: The Athar

Moderate Subfaction: The Defiers hold that we must assign purpose to our own lives, because the powers are not supreme beings powerful enough to grant our lives meaning from above.  Defiers seek out those who have been disappointed by the powers or believe their lives lack meaning, and help them find their own meaning using a philosophy of self-empowerment.

Extreme Subfaction:  The Defilers believe that the powers are dangerous frauds who trick believers into worshipping them solely for the purpose of increasing their own power.  Defilers actively aim to disrupt the worship of the Gods, defile their holy places, and prove to all believers that they are being brainwashed and manipulated for nefarious purposes.

I welcome any feedback in the comments section below.  If you like this article, please share it with your friends or let me know on twitter @ThePlanarDM.

2 thoughts on “Factions Need Extremists and Moderates”

  1. I’ll try and be polite but the bias within this article kind of reveals itself, especially since putting “moderates” on a high pedestal like that. It’s difficult to take seriously because it places such moral authority to the centrists of the fantasy world, and especially because it disregards many of the accomplishments “extreme” political groupings have brought.
    For example: Without the Black Panthers, for example, the Social Change within the 60s wouldn’t have likely been crushed by the government like it did many times before. Most “extremism” (not counting reactionary politics) comes from a place of countering oppression after all other methods failed.
    Alongside the Overton Window, especially these past couple years shows that the Moderates aren’t really the true pinnacle of whatever is right or empirical because their opinions will change depending on what the loudest and most prominent voice is (see: The Alt-Right in the US), conversely “moderate” opinions may not even be empirical and the “extreme” opinions suddenly are based on science.
    For example, evidence shows that humans work better and are healthier in cooperative workspaces where their work is valued and they see the value in themselves at work, yet our moderate understanding is in clear favor of competition. How can one reconcile that disconnect between those two facts? If the moderates truly are the peacekeepers of empirical reasoning wouldn’t things be better than they are now? Many moderates, today and even in Fantasy Settings, go along with the tide because it promises them 2 things: Power and Obfuscation.
    For any more questions, I’ll be here to respond.

    1. Fair points. I think this idea of looking at ideas on a spectrum — and seeing why where they fall can matter and how that process interacts — is an advantage of purposely adding extremist and moderate factions, and it naturally lends itself to the planescape setting. A great planescape adventure would be frustration at moderates never taking sufficiently powerful action to achieve their goals, then contrasting them with extremists who advocate methods that shouldn’t be universalizable but could be considered useful in a critical moment.

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