In this Introduction to Planescape Series, we first explained why Planescape exists as both Dungeons and Dragons' Theory of the Planes and as a specific setting, then explored each of the two aspects in more detail. In this final article of the series, we will put everything together and discuss how GMs should and should not introduce Planescape into their campaigns.
Wait a minute, you say, if Planescape is the theory of DND’s planes and all worlds exist on some plane, doesn’t that mean all DND worlds are already part of the Planescape?
Yes, attentive reader, you are correct. All worlds are part of Planescape when Planescape is defined as DND’s Theory of the Planes. But NOT all worlds are part of the Planescape-specific setting, and many worlds may be irreparably harmed if the GM were to introduce the Planescape setting. Let’s look at how introducing Planescape may affect one such world, Backwardsprime.
Planescape Destroys Backwardsprime
For months, the level 3 heroes have been tracking down the lair of the necromancer whose minions have terrorized the poor farming town of Backwardsprime, destroying crops, slaughtering livestock, and chasing travelers off the roads. While searching for allies, the heroes accidentally stumble through an archway and appear in Sigil, a city built inside a ring floating above an infinite spire in the direct center of the outer planes. Their jaws drop as they see buildings towering hundreds of feet off the ground, merchants peddling exotic goods from across the planes, and all manner of fascinating creatures weaving plots that impact the very nature of the multiverse.
What are the odds that our heroes will return to save Backwardsprime from the necromancer?
Planescape’s Potential Pitfalls
Planescape takes fantasy tropes and pushes them to their extremes. This may create problems for GMs introducing Planescape into gritty or low fantasy settings. The tonal dissonance may be distracting for players, and if the full resources of the planes become available to the players, this may undermine the gravitas/importance of their previous accomplishments, or cause them to lose interest in more mundane challenges.
Another potential problem is attention drift. The players may find the new world so compelling that what you had imagined to be a short side trip turns into the new sandbox your players want to explore, thus derailing your previous campaign. Conversely, you yourself as the GM may lose interest in your previous setting and want to move the characters out to the planes, but the characters, with backstory hooks all based in the previous world, may be more inclined to remain in the old setting.
The more grounded you want your campaign to remain in your current setting, the more you should treat Planescape as a Theory of DND Everything, while the more you want your campaign to move towards the extreme elements of the outer planes, the more you should embrace the Planescape Specific Setting.
Adding Elements of the Planes, Staying Grounded in Reality
To keep their campaigns grounded in the reality of their normal setting, GMs should ignore most of the setting-specific items of Planescape. Don’t include the Planar Factions or their games of political intrigue. Don’t get overly excited and immediately introduce the players to the many fascinating characters from Faces of Sigil. Hell, don’t even bring the characters to Sigil at all, or, if you do introduce Sigil, don’t make the city accessible or easy to navigate. This is easy enough--Sigil residents look down on those from mundane “prime” worlds, and, because the city is filled with talent from across the planes, Sigil’s movers and shakers won’t be banging down the party’s doors to ask these relative newcomers to help them resolve exciting quests.
Instead, start by focusing on one or two of your favorite locations in the outer planes and a few of your favorite themes or NPCs. Decide how you want to link that to your campaign, then introduce lore, perhaps in the form of a myth, a text, or a planeswalker who has experienced the outer planes herself to hook in the players. Next, have the lore introduce a means to travel there. Planar portals are the most straightforward, and finding the appropriate portal and portal key can become an adventure in and of itself. The portal needn’t go through Sigil as a waypoint--if you’re just dabbling in the planes and not plunging in headfirst, just have the portal go directly to its ultimate destination. Finally, introduce the planes at an appropriate (read: often high) level.
Using this framework, let’s take another shot at our example, Backwardsprime.
Backwardsprime Meets Planescape, Take II
Unable to defeat the dread lich Bbeg using normal means, the level 12 heroes search the ancient archives of Backwardsprime’s cathedral for means of slowing the inexorable spread of his corruption. They learn that Bbeg chose lichdom after selling away the rights to his post-mortem body to a faction in Sigil called the Dustmen, and this faction likely knows how to recoup its investment.
The party travels to Sigil and learns of a MacGuffin found only in the River Styx that, depending on how it is used, can either artificially extend a life or end a life that has been artificially extended. Along their journey to find the MacGuffin, they encounter a rival group called the Prolongers, perhaps led by Verden from Faces of Sigil, who want to use the same MacGuffin to prolong their own lives so that they can accomplish more good in the planes. And as they travel along the river, they meet souls of the dead, some being ferried to different destinations, others whose memories have been wiped clean by submersion in the waters of the Styx, that make manifest the plusses and minuses of each choice.
Ultimately, the party is confronted with two aspects of a problem--in this case the ethical and practical consequences of technology that further or indefinitely extends human lifespans--and is forced to make a choice that links back to the dramatic tensions of their existing campaign. That’s what makes this a Planescape adventure arc for your campaign.
You do not need to use the 15 philosophical factions, the distinctive slang, or the cumbersome rules on how planar travel affects magic if you want to add Planescape to your game.
You just need your game to be in the right place. Often that place is when characters are at a higher level, when they are seeking the aid of a deity, or when they are already confronted by a death or a moral dilemma.
Then make sure it stays in the right place in terms of tone and flow. Handwave the portal system if it helps, or make it the basis for the adventure. Skip Sigil, or confront the characters face-on with how insignificant their concerns are in the grand scheme of the multiverse.
If there’s anything like a hard rule to adding Planescape to your game, it’s that the outer planes are about thoughts and ideals made manifest, and so adventures should revolve around moral choices, often taken to their logical extremes. But there’s also nothing wrong with dispensing with the philosophy and just throwing characters into huge battles in Acheron or Ysgard. (A future article will describe how to do just that in Acheron.)
Just be aware of what Planescape can do and make conscious decisions, and your players will be experienced planeswalkers in no time.
This completes the Introduction to Planescape Series. Articles now will focus on adding specific aspects of Planescape to 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. This may include converting and updating old 2e content, creating my own new content, or modifying existing 5e content. It may also include random bits of advice or stories.
I’ll also be providing content in other formats as well, such as sharing Tony DiTerlizzi’s fantastic Planescape art, sharing the best Planescape resources that I’m aware of, reviewing Planescape media, and posting information about Planescape miniatures.
I hope you continue to join me as we explore the planes.