Planescape should be understood in two ways: as a specific setting, and as D&D's Unified Theory of the Planes. In this series of articles introducing Planescape, I will use this framework to introduce Planescape to GMs new to the setting and explain how to add the planes into your game.
Answer One: A Stand-Alone Setting
As a stand-alone setting, Planescape is a lot of fun and, in fact, closely resembles other classic published settings. It has a detailed home base (the city Sigil) with taverns, shops, factions, and quest-givers. There is a frontier (the Outlands) and a wilderness (the Outer Planes).
Interesting NPCs abound, and I have my favorites. Shemeska the Marauder, an arcanaloth (fiendish fox) who trades in information and seemingly has her fingers in every plot across the planes, as brought to life by WOTC writer Chris Perkins on his Dungeons and Dragons Livestream Dice, Camera, Action. Seamuszanthusxenus, a dust mephit who inherited a pet shop named “Pets and Meat” and now trades animal parts. “The Us,” a swarm of cranium rats (telepathic rats with exposed brains), who, reaching a critical mass, achieved cognizance and independence of their former master, and who are now bent upon his destruction.
Planescape also has its share of unique elements. The 15 factions who dominate the politics of Sigil with their logic-contorting philosophies. Planar Cant, the common slang of the planes, which, the creators of the setting noted, “came from the extremely colorful slang of thieves, swindlers, and beggars in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century” (Sigil and Beyond, p.95). The system of portals and portal keys that allows instant travel around the planes. And so on.
The Planescape setting has a cosmopolitan feel, almost like a bar in Star Wars held together by magic instead of technology. Talking about the meddling of wizards or dragons in a Planescape tavern would sound quaint; plots in Planescape are initiated by gods and fought by legions of greater devils. Yet the setting provides shortcuts such as portals to allow even lower level characters to engage in plots that, in other campaign settings, would be restricted to those approaching epic-tier.
During Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition, TSR fully supported the setting, publishing six box sets, more than two dozen books, an amazing computer game (Planescape: Torment), and an official pewter miniatures line.
In short, Planescape shines as a stand-alone setting. But it’s also a lot bigger than that, and its role as a Unified Theory of DND Everything makes learning the setting invaluable even for DMs running games in traditional settings.
What is Planescape Answer Two: A Unified Theory of DND Everything
What happens when you die? How you approach this question in a college philosophy or theology class is a lot different than how you approach it when the internal logic of your fantasy world mandates the existence of Resurrection magic. And you need an answer. Those PCs you keep trying to make stay dead always want to know what their characters saw beyond the pearly gates.
You also need to answer how corrupted souls spawn demons and devils, and how those fiends can be summoned directly into the world by magic. Why alignments matter. Why divine magic and arcane magic are different and where that power comes from. Where all these gods that fill up the deities section of the book reside. And how it is that, when you pick up each new official campaign setting, each appears completely isolated from the others, yet DM’s are encouraged to weave them together into overarching stories for their players.
In short, DND needs a unified theory of everything. It must explain how the metaphysical questions raised by DND’s rules interact with the physical settings in which the characters play. This theory is the ‘planescape,’ lower case p.
The default planescape theory has changed throughout the editions. You see this reflected in the varying cosmological maps and models, which were typically explained in each edition’s Manual of the Planes. 2e and 3e use the Great Wheel cosmology, while 4e uses the World Axis, and the Forgotten Realms uses the World Tree model. 5e simply presents all the models and tells the GM to use whatever works best for her game.
TSR, fearing continued blowback from the Satanic Panic that had threatened the game in the 1980s, never published a Manual of the Planes for Second Edition. Instead, the designers created a new specific setting called Planescape that also included 2e’s theory of the Planescape.
In the next articles in this series, I will first explain exactly what unified theories Planescape provides for DND, then explain key elements of the specific setting, and finally draw on these distinctions to help DMs pick the appropriate elements to include in your game.