Introduction to Planescape

Introduction to Planescape 3/4: Understanding the Core Setting

The Planescape campaign setting published for DND Second Edition is filled with complex NPCs, fantastic locations, villainous schemes, and the peerless artwork of Tony DiTerlizzi. But how do you find what you’re looking for in an out-of-print setting with 4 box sets and 20+ published adventures?  This article will get you started, laying out the basics you need to know and other resources that will help you run the setting.

Adventures in the Outer Planes: Different, but the Same

Even the Outer Planes, realms of belief and philosophy, are designed to fit D&D’s classic game design structure.  There is a home base, Sigil; a frontier, the Outlands; and a wilderness, The Outer Planes themselves. These familiar D&D tropes allow DMs to create adventures that are more accessible to players familiar with traditional settings.

The setting is designed for first tier (level 1-4) characters to adventure in Sigil and the Outlands, second-tier (level 5-10) characters to adventure in the Outlands and less extreme outer planes, and higher level characters to journey into the most dangerous places the planes have to offer.  First-tier adventures may include quests in Sigil’s Hive Ward, a sprawling and dangerous slums; a journey into under-sigil, the catacombs and old buildings upon which the present iteration of the city has been built; or accompanying a caravan between two Gate Towns in the Outlands.

Let's take a look at these three tiers of location, saving the most complex, Sigil, for last.

The Outlands and the Outer Planes

The Outlands is a circular body of land that surrounds sigil. Like a clock with 16 numbers instead of 12, the Outlands has 16 gatetowns arranged in a circle along its outer edge, each corresponding to and containing a permanent portal to one of the Outer Planes.  A path called The Great Road runs along the edge of Outlands, linking these gate towns. It may be traversed on foot and in a finite period of time (whether that is days, weeks or months is up to the GM), and gatetowns may also be linked by portals to Sigil itself.  

Although the Outlands contains dangerous locales inhabited by powerful beings, the meat and potatoes of adventures in Planescape’s “frontier” is the gatetowns.  Each can be thought of as a less extreme version of the plane its corresponding outer plane. For example, the residents and urban planning of the gatetown of Bedlam are crazy to be sure, but, compared to the maze of infinite caverns carved by maddening, howling winds in Pandemonium, its corresponding outer plane, the place ain’t that bad.  Consequently, gatetowns are great locales to introduce the flavor of the outer planes without throwing players, literally, into the fires of Hell.

At higher levels, any of the outer planes is fair game.  Players can go on infiltration missions in Hell, loot the bodies of dead gods floating in the Astral Sea, or steal the central gear that will bring the infinite wheels of Mechanus to a grinding halt.  The Outer Planes are described in some detail on pages 57-66 of the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and will be the subject of many future articles, so I will skip straight to the most complicated and critical location to understand before running the Planescape Setting:  the city of Sigil.

Sigil: The Ultimate Home Base

The city of Sigil is designed to be an oasis of stability in the outer planes, a place players can return to after adventures to rest, heal up, resupply, and prepare for the next adventure.  If players seem inclined to spend an extended period of time in Sigil, DMs may wish to use this handy Guide to Sigil Lifestyle Expenses.

The Lady of Pain

Sigil has a guardian angel, The Lady of Pain, whose power is so immense that she can maintain the peace in Sigil and keep out any ultrapowerful planar forces, such as gods, that could threaten Sigil’s status as a home base.  She herself is inscrutable; the designers gave her no motive for her actions as a peacekeeper and purposely instructed GMs not to provide one to players. The design decision here is to keep her above the fray of cosmic philosophical struggles, and thus keep Sigil a safe home base in the otherwise dangerous multiverse.

Portals

Sigil’s ubiquitous portals, which at the DM’s discretion can link anywhere in the planes with Sigil, cement the city’s status as a hub for adventurers exploring the planes.  These portals can enrich quests or expedite them. The adventure itself might consist of locating a portal and a portal key to a specific plane, or, and this is especially likely to be the case after you’ve already run an adventure centered around finding a portal key, the DM may hand-wave the whole process, and simply narrates the party finding its way to its destination plane.  

NPCs and The Cant

Sigil is also a place to interact with NPC quest givers.  Rival factions and unaligned power players abound in Sigil, all of them vying for influence and resources.  Consequently, a capable adventuring party should be tripping over NPCs trying to give them quests. Newcomers to Sigil, however, should have to earn their reputation first; first-level adventurers are a dime-a-dozen in a city that occupies the center of the multiverse.  

The setting uses a few tools to breathe life into NPCs.  One is the Cant, the common slang of Sigil and the planes, which, the creators of the setting noted, “came from the extremely colorful slang of thieves, swindlers, and beggars [of England] in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century” (Sigil and Beyond, p.95).  To impress the language of the setting on DMs and players, all of the official D&D 2e Planescape source materials are written in the Cant to some degree, while many Planescape themed websites adopt it as well.  DMs should consider this a fun, though completely optional, part of the setting’s flavor. The Planescape Campaign Setting, described below, contains a glossary of common terms, and one may also find Cant dictionaries on the internet.

The Factions and Philosophy

Planescape’s other setting-specific tool to breathe life into NPCs is its collection of 15 factions, each with a unique and unusual philosophical orientation (think half-baked college philosophy ideas meet planar cults), that vie for control of influence in Sigil and the Outer Planes.  In the Outer planes, belief literally changes reality, so the factions are all trying to promote their own beliefs to shape reality in a way that benefits them. The Mercykillers, for example, are trying to make the planes more just by ensuring that all are properly punished.

Factions make the perfect quest givers in Planescape.  They have the resources; they have premade headquarters and NPCs; they are constantly trying to get the leg up on one another; and, because their beliefs and skills are skewed to rather specific philosophies, they often lack the diversity of beliefs or skills to accomplish all of their goals on their own, in-house.  Therefore they often need to contract more morally flexible outside help, i.e., the PCs.

The faction system essentially creates a blueprint for adventure scenario design in Planescape. First pick a faction about which the players have expressed interest and imagine an event or change or item that, if introduced into the world, would negatively impact that faction. The faction then hires the PCs to prevent or address that problem.

Alternatively, if you already know the even in the world that you want to introduce, such as the Modron March, start with the event and then imagine which factions will benefit or lose as a result. In the case of the Modron March, if the planes become more lawful and orderly,  this will benefit factions espousing order while harming those who believe in the creative virtues of Chaos. The lawful governor's faction makes a natural benefactor for an adventure that assists the objectives of the March, well the Doomguard, who support entropy, would likely pay adventurers to disrupt or prevent the March.

Future articles on this blog will reference the factions, but for more immediate and comprehensive treatment of the factions, see the resources section below.

Sigil’s Tone: A Cage, not a Sanctuary

Finally, DM’s should remember that while Sigil is a diverse metropolis filled with wonderous beings and objects from across the planes, and a hub for traveling to those same places, it is no paradise.  The weather is miserable. The slums span a full third of the city. The ongoing cold war among the Factions, and between other planar forces, could heat up as fast as an Ice Devil in Gehenna. In short, competition is cutthroat, and everything has its cost.

Next: Adding Planescape to your Home Campaign

In the next and final article of this series introducing GMs to Planescape, we will discuss how -- and how not -- to add Planescape to your own campaign.  But first, let me end this article by summarizing the best resources available to GMs new to the setting.

Resources for GMs New to Planescape

The best way for a DM to familiarize herself with Planescape is to purchase two books: Planescape Campaign Setting and Uncaged: Faces of Sigil.

The Campaign Setting is a box set comprising a DM’s guide, a Player’s guide, a guide to important locations, planar creatures, a DM screen, and posters showing the arrangments of the planes and factions, as well as a map of Sigil.  Hard copies can be found on ebay, while digital PDFs can be purchased on DriveThruRPG, link above. With the Campaign Setting, the 5e sourcebooks, and your imagination, you have everything you need to run Planescape games.

Although not strictly necessary, I highly recommend any GM, even one only wishing to dabble in Planescape, also purchase Uncaged: Faces of Sigil.  This book introduces 30+ planar NPCs, their plots and schemes, the interactions among them, and amazing art. This is the single best DND book I have ever read, and it will make any GM immediately want to run Planescape, if only to have the chance to role-play some of these NPCs.

For those who anticipate their players making a longer stay in the Planescape setting, I recommend also purchasing In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil and The Factol’s Manifesto.

The former really fleshes out Sigil, and, when combined with this awesome online interactive map, really makes the city come alive.  The latter expands on the Factions and key NPCs within each one.  Given how difficult it can be to wrap one’s head around the Factions, this book can be a lifesaver if your players want to join one or have a faction as their patron.

For further information about Planescape resources, see the Resources page on this blog.

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